No proof Grand Prix spent $13M on Belle Isle improvements since ’07

Belle Isle Conservancy. Photo by Steve Neavling.
Belle Isle Conservatory. Photo by Steve Neavling.

The Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix will not provide any specifics to back up its claim that it has contributed $13 million in improvements to the state-operated island.

Merrill Cain, spokesman of the controversial event, provided a list of “projects that we have contributed to Belle Isle since 2007” but refused to answer questions about the nature or location of the projects or how much money the race spent on any of them.

“We do not publicize the specific dollar amounts assigned to each project,” Cain explained. He would say only that “the over $13 million reflects the total of what event organizers and our contributing partners have dedicated to these projects over the years.”

The projects he listed are: “installing new concrete for road improvements and other modifications; repairing damaged lighting and drainage systems; renovation of Scott Fountain, the Belle Isle Casino and the Belle Isle Boat Club; installing new pedestrian bridges, bicycle paths and parking areas; working with Platinum Equity to install new LED lights on MacArthur Bridge and around Scott Fountain; adding playscapes, picnic tables and park benches to the island; creating new concrete areas to be used by park visitors for parking and community events and activities year round; creating the Cooper Standard walking trail on the west end of the island.”

Michigan Department of Natural Resources chief Ron Olson told me that the DNR could not provide its own documentation of the $13 million.

In February 2014, the state leased the island from the city for $1 over the protests of may Detroit residents. On the DNR website is a report on the state’s first year of operation of the island. It doesn’t mention any revenues from the Grand Prix. Olson says the DNR gets $200,000 a year from the Grand Prix for the rights to hold the race in the park.

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The DNR report notes revenues of $4.1 million for Belle Isle from MDOT. That money was spent on improving the roads on the race circuit. It was a legislative appropriation, Olson said, not Grand Prix revenue.

Olson said there were contributions from the race not noted on the website, including an annual inspection of the Scott Fountain to keep it operational; renovations to Shelter 9; and extensive work on the casino. The Grand Prix uses the casino as its media headquarters during the race.

Olson also mentioned the new bridge lights. It’s been reported they were paid for with a $50,000 donation by Pistons owner Tom Gores. Platinum Equity is a Gores company.

Asked for details about road improvements, lighting and draining repairs, bridges, bike lanes, parking, playscapes, picnic tables, and the other items, Cain would not explain the number, location, or cost of any of the projects.

Without this information, it is impossible to say how much of the claimed $13 million in improvements went solely or mainly to build and improve the race circuit. Most of the improvements appear to have been made to the west end of the island, where the race is held, and to facilities used by the Grand Prix.

It’s well known that Roger Penske converted ten acres of grassland near the Scott Fountain into a concrete paddock. Is that a park improvement? In Cain’s description, it’s “creating new concrete areas to be used by park visitors for parking and community events and activities year round.” But were park visitors asking for more concrete on the island?

In addition to what’s noted on Cain’s list, the Grand Prix has supported the Belle Isle Conservancy – not with money from the race itself, but from the pre-race gala fundraiser, the Grand Prixmiere. In 2013, the party netted $229,285 for the Conservancy. In 2014, it raised $652,879; in 2015, $1,087,001. This year’s party raised $545,617.

All told, that’s more than $2.5 million for the conservancy, and, according to Conservancy president Michele Hodges, it’s been spent on operating the aquarium, mitigation of invasive species, assessments and restoration of historic structures, field trips for 2,000 Detroit Public School third- and fourth-graders, hiring an education coordinator, improving the island’s trail system, and Conservancy administration, planning, programming, and initiatives.

It’s clear that Grand Prix revenues have supported work on Belle Isle.
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The race organizers are staying quite vague, however, as to exactly how much money was spent where. The city, the state, and local media have not to date pressed them to say.

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.

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