Grand Prix opponents: Belle Isle should not remain a billionaire’s private racetrack

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

At a DNR “public listening session” on the Belle Isle Grand Prix Wednesday night, race opponents gave officials a formal request for an environmental impact study of the event and dominated two hours of comments with impassioned statements about how the beloved park should not remain a billionaire’s private racetrack.

The state and local chapters of the Sierra Club and Audubon Society headed a list of environmental and preservation groups, activists, and community leaders demanding such a study be done before any new contract for the Grand Prix is approved. Parks chief Ron Olson, who attended the forum but did not speak, told the Detroit City Council this spring such a study isn’t required and wouldn’t be done.

Surprisingly, no proposed new race contract was presented at the meeting. And Olson told a separate meeting of the Belle Isle Parks Advisory Committee Thursday morning that the Grand Prix has not submitted a proposal yet for a new contract with the state to replace the previous contract with the city that expires after next year’s race.

No one from the DNR made any remarks at Wednesday’s packed public session. Instead, Grand Prix general manager Michael Montri kicked off the meeting with a public relations slide show about the benefits of the event. It included the oft-repeated and never-substantiated claim that the event generates $47 million in economic impact to the Detroit area. I asked for proof, as I have for over a year, but no questions on his presentation were allowed. (And sure enough, the claim was repeated without qualification in stories Wednesday night in both the News and the Free Press.)

When I questioned Olson after Thursday morning’s meeting, he denounced my previous reporting that a new contract was a done deal as “throwing me under the bus.” Queried about his past statements admitting private talks took place for months this year with the Grand Prix, he said “talks and negotiations are two different things” and claimed that no negotiations with race organizers have yet taken place

Olson also admitted, in front of several onlookers, that he didn’t know whether the $47 million economic benefits claim was factual—even though this spring his DNR repeated the assertion in response to questions from city councilmember Mary Sheffield’s subcommittee.

At Wednesday’s meeting, at least fifty people made comments of two minutes apiece, the majority with strong objections to continuing the race on the island. It was déjà vu all over again, since overwhelming public opposition was proven this spring in previous “listening sessions” and a DNR online survey of more than 1,600 park users.

A highlight of the evening was comment from 91-year-old Helen Gentry, who lives across from Belle Isle. She spoke of how her 2014 lawsuit against Roger Penske’s race was thrown out of court, telling the crowd “you’re wasting your breath” and adding that new legal action was the only way for opponents of the race to get it off the island.

After public comments were finished—and at least half the crowd had left—people were given stickers to vote for statements made that they agreed with. DNR and Grand Prix officials were among those getting stickers.

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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.