Public left in dark about future of Grand Prix at Belle Isle

Grand Prix setup at Belle Isle. Photo by Michael Betzold.
Grand Prix setup at Belle Isle. Photo by Michael Betzold.

Will the public have any say on renewing the contract for the Belle Isle Grand Prix after it expires in 2018?

When asked, the DNR’s official response to Motor City Muckraker was: “We have not yet decided who will be involved in renegotiating the contract.”

The response assumes the race will continue in some form. That’s no surprise, given that DNR chief Ron Olson told the Michigan Parks Advisory Committee last month that Roger Penske’s event “has invested over $13 million in the island” and “further stimulates the local economy approximately $50 million each year,” according to the minutes of the meeting in Gaylord.

Neither of those oft-repeated claims has ever been substantiated.

The 15-member advisory committee, which met for the third and final time this year in June, is supposed to “ensure the public has a voice” in the state parks system. It’s a subcommittee of the Natural Resources Commission, a seven-member body of gubernatorial appointees that supervises policy for the DNR. At the June 16 meeting, NRC commissioners “expressed that money donated by Penske and others to rehabilitate the island should be better promoted” and said “the message needs to get out about the many ways the race has brought in revenue to the island and the community.”

In other words, their only concern was that Penske should have better PR.

The state has run the park since leasing it from the city in February 2014. Asked about issues raised by race protesters in May, Olson told Muckraker, “It’s not our race, for God’s sake!” while explaining that the state must follow the pre-existing contract with Detroit. But that contract runs only two more years.

The other official conduit for public input into policies and events on Belle Isle is the Belle Isle Conservancy. Conservancy president Michele Hodges says she wants “to minimize the negatives” associated with the annual car race and “maximize the positives” in her discussions with the DNR about its future. Though the Conservancy’s board of directors has taken no position yet on extending the contract, she maintains that “the park cannot just rely on government funding” and that the conservancy’s “philosophy is to work with corporate entities to identify financial and other resources” for the island. She adds that “Roger Penske has been a good partner” and shares a desire to do what’s best for the island.

Hodges adds that “we see ourselves as the voice of park users, and we absolutely want the public involved” in the decision on the contract renewal. The Conservancy is a nonprofit with annual dues of $25 for members (seniors and students, $10).

Hodges chairs the Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee, which advises the DNR. At its monthly meetings, members of the public cannot ask questions but get three minutes of comment time at the end. Hodges claims she is following “Robert’s Rules of Order” to “protect everybody” and “have orderly, respectful meetings.”

July’s monthly meeting was cancelled. Prior to the August 25 meeting at the Flynn Pavilion on the island, Hodges, DNR reps, and others appointed to a task force on the island’s future will be discussing the report of a private consulting firm hired last year – at their own closed-door meeting.

Clearly, the cars have already reached their starting position and the flag just has to be dropped.

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Michael Betzold

Michael Betzold is a former Free Press reporter and longtime area freelance journalist. He wrote Queen of Diamonds, a history of Tiger Stadium. He lives on Detroit’s east side.