State moves closer to new contract for Grand Prix on Belle Isle over objections

Advertisements along the Grand Prix track at Belle Isle in Detroit. Photo by Carol Rhoades.

Opponents of the Grand Prix on Belle Isle voiced concerns about the annual race’s impact on the environment and recreation during a meeting in which the state laid out its timetable for a new contract for the Grand Prix on Belle Isle on Thursday, announcing a Sept. 20 public review of its plan.

During public comment at the monthly meeting of the Belle Isle Parks Advisory Committee, 10 speakers opposed the Grand Prix and no one spoke in favor of the annual event. Representing the Detroit chapter of the Audubon Society, Diane Cheklich asked the Department of Natural Resource to conduct an independent environmental study of the event’s impact on migratory birds and other island habitat before approving any new contract.

The existing contract between the city of Detroit and Roger Penske expires after the 2018 race. But DNR parks chief Ron Olson has already announced that the state will award Roger Penske a new multi-year contract for the race, with a reduction in the set-up and takedown time from 11 to nine weeks (about what it used to be when the state took over the island in February 2014).

The Sept. 20 “public review” of the new contract will be held at 6:30 at the Belle Isle Nature Zoo.

So far, the DNR has exhibited a marked attention deficit disorder concerning public views of the Grand Prix. Past “listening sessions” on March 29 – and an online survey of more than 1,300 park users the DNR conducted early this year – found park users overwhelmingly want the race removed from the island. But the DNR, with the enthusiastic backing of Belle Isle Conservancy President Michele Hodges, has pushed ahead with a new race contract anyway.

Asked after Thursday’s meeting about the 10 public comments opposing the race, Hodges, who chairs the advisory committee, said: “We’re going to do what’s best for the park.” Her salary – and much of the conservancy’s budget – is paid for by Penske’s annual Belle Isle fundraiser, the Grand Prixmiere.

In answer to questions from City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield’s subcommittee earlier this summer, the DNR said it has no plans to conduct an environmental impact study of the race. The DNR also repeated the unsubstantiated claim that the Grand Prix brings $47 million in economic benefits to the Detroit area annually. That’s the assertion – with slightly different numbers each year in the mid-$40-million range—that Penske has been making for years.

This May, the race may have been the cause for a 900% reduction in the park’s other facility and use permit rentals, according to figures supplied by the DNR. Revenues fell from $85,392 in April to $9,125 in May and $36,329 in June. As the month of May progresses, the Grand Prix set-up increasingly interferes with much of the park before relaxing its grip by mid-June. Asked for an explanation of the rental revenue fluctuations, the DNR has not responded.

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.