Oppose efforts to turn Belle Isle into a veritable racetrack

Grand Prix

The DNR is poised to renew a contract for Grand Prix races that turn much of the beloved island into a concrete barrier during the spring.


Longtime Detroit journalist and former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold rides his recumbent bike to Belle Isle most mornings but says he was booted from the park for 24 hours this May for protesting the Grand Prix.  

Without question, Belle Isle is Detroit’s most precious jewel. It deservedly has a special place in the hearts of generations of Detroiters and Michiganders. Since February 2014, it’s been under the stewardship of the DNR, which each spring turns it into a racetrack for a billionaire.

Whether you think leasing Belle Isle to the state was a heist, a scam, or its salvation, the island’s reputation has rebounded from harder times. It’s attracting more folks from outside Detroit than ever.

Under state auspices, the race each year has expanded in scope and length — to a ridiculous set-up and takedown time spanning most of the spring During that time, access to the most popular and accessible part of the island is tightly controlled by Roger Penske’s private security force. That makes the state-imposed $11 entrance fee even harder for Detroiters to swallow —  and keeps visitors from using popular areas of the park for family picnics, weddings and other gatherings in March, April, and May.

The inherited contract between Penske and the city of Detroit expires after the 2018 race. But the DNR is poised to renew it for years to come.  

The DNR has scheduled a “public review” of its proposed new five-year contract with Penske on Sept. 20 (next Wednesday) at 6 p.m. at the Nature Zoo on Belle Isle. Members of the public will get two minutes apiece for comment; those who can’t attend can email comments by Sept. 22 to Scott Pratt of the DNR (pratts@michigan.gov ).

But a “review” is not genuine engagement with park users. Rather, it’s a cynical charade, since park users already have made it absolutely clear they want the race to be banished. In both an online survey this spring (PDF) and in two “public listening sessions”  March 29, more than 1,600 island patrons told the DNR that getting rid of the race was by far the most important priority for Belle Isle.

The DNR responded by burying these embarrassing results deep on its website, while parks chief Ron Olson said he was “listening to the public” by saying a new contract would cut Penske’s hegemony down to nine weeks—about what it used to be until the state took over, and still way longer than similar races in any other city.  Meanwhile, the state is installing permanent fixtures in the park—such as concrete anchors for pedestrian overpasses and racing stripes— that are only for the race. The DNR is turning the island into a racetrack.

In official answers to Mary Sheffield’s Detroit City Council subcommittee, Olson cited claims of Penske’s island improvements —including millions spent by MDOT on racetrack roadways and the paving of an 8.9-acre concrete paddock (which entailed felling memorial trees planted by SOSAD).

Even more preposterously, Olson rejected the idea of conducting any environmental impact study  of the race and parroted the preposterous Penske claim that the race generates $47 million annually in “economic benefits to the Detroit area.” This figures each of the 100,000 race attendees — including those who come on Friday “free day” — spend roughly $470, enough to get their own private hotel room and order expensive meals. These “economic impact” numbers are the same balderdash concocted to justify public money for sports arenas—long proven to come out of the thin air in corporate fantasyland.

Also staunchly supporting the race is the Belle isle Conservancy, which runs the reopened aquarium and conservancy and whose president, Michele Hodges, has much of her budget raised by the annual Grand Prixmiere fundraiser.

No wonder she touts this “public-private partnership” for Belle Isle. But there are better ways of tapping funding—e.g., foundation grants—that would do the job of “conserving” Belle Isle without prostituting it. I for one would lead a public campaign for the Conservancy if Hodges would reverse her stance on the Grand Prix.

Penske is looking more and more the villain—and nothing is more destructive to a businessman than bad PR.  It would benefit his bottom line to build a permanent racetrack elsewhere—in a place that needs some real economic redevelopment. There are many more suitable places for the Grand Prix imaginable, starting with City Airport and the state fairgrounds and roaming all over the empty east side. Maybe a visionary city leader could help him find a place to hold his race.

If Penske quits Belle Isle, he’d be a hero, and we should erect a statue to him in the park—right next to James Scott, the gambler who gave Detroit money to build a fountain on Belle Isle as a tribute to him.

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John Saari
Thu, 09/14/2017 - 9:39am

public-private partnerships are often great ideas. Saving tax dollars is always the goal. Enhance and polish the jewel.

Carol Rhoades
Thu, 09/14/2017 - 10:27am

Public/private partnerships are not always in the best interest of the people. If the goal is to raise money to operate a park (Belle Isle), then why not build hotels, wineries, restaurants, amusement rides, apartments all over Belle Isle? Then you no longer have a nature park that is an oasis of quiet in a concrete filled city. People want to live next to a park filled with trees, water, scenic views and that is how the new apartments near Belle Isle advertise to get new tenants. The revenue from the Grand Prix race was used in the past to repave and widen the road used for the track, cut down trees to pave 10 acres for a cement paddock, remove sidewalks, build ugly pedestrian bridge foundations on grassy areas and make permanent cut-outs of the curbs for Grand Prix VIP parking on the lawns. This is not a way to "polish the jewel"!

Sun, 09/17/2017 - 2:00pm

Saving tax dollars means saving tax dollars to spend on what the super rich like the Koch brothers want--anything that protects worldwide fossil fuels exploitation--including huge standing military assets, who are also the biggest users of said fossil fuels. And before anything is said, my husband had 43 years in the active and reserve, my daughter is AD Navy and my son in law was in Fallujah and Mosul during the second Iraq war. I know about the military. Yes, tax dollars must be saved for that, and this means what the rest of us might want some of the tax dollars we doke in used for--maybe, parks, national monuments, schools, roads--gets a big thumbs down from the state and federal legisalation-based knee benders to the super rich. When there is enough complaining about potholed roads and crime ridden parks, they find a way to make the user or volunteers pay for it, do the work, or both. During my lifetime, I have watched "urban renewal" send historic structures and districts go crashing down, to be replaced by bars, nightclubs and trendy stores. Next they add the "venues" to make people come downtown to watch the shenanigans, which are usually car races, New Orleans style pub crawls or a food fests. People buy a sandwich and go home. Nobody is happy but the rich guys who had the fun of their car race or food fest, and nobody is richer.

They really ballyhooed public private partnerships in the UP for upland game hunting. We tried out one of these partnered trails last year, and we'll never do it again. It was not sited to produce grouse, it was sited to please the business partner. this is the way these partnerships work--the public end is the short end.

Oh Detroit is back. Well, when I was a girl, my mom and I would take the bus downtown, then take a cab, and step out of the cab in front of the JL Hudson flagship store. Show me where the equivalent of Hudson's is, exactly.

Mark Lantz
Thu, 09/14/2017 - 10:31am

I have a lot of sympathy for this point of view. BUT . . . there's almost no way on God's green earth that this race is moving off Belle Isle. It's a shame that so much of the park is compromised for so long (particularly during some premium calendar time). But I suspect all the powers that be like the PR, the glamour and the money the race attracts. And probably don't spend a ton of time on Belle Isle during non-race times, anyway.

Robert Wancha
Thu, 09/14/2017 - 10:41am

I think a Detroit Grand Prix would be better located downtown or the State Fairgrounds or City Airport. If it remains on Belle Isle the setup to cleanup time should be shortened to minimize the loss of use to the usual city and state residents that want to enjoy it year-round. Even permanent structures and supports for the race can be designed to minimize negative impact to the natural beauty of the park, if the DNR and Penske are motivated to do so.

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 11:47am

I think everyone quickly forgets what this island looked like before the race. The city could not maintain it, grass was uncut, buildings in ruins, dead bodies galore, high crime, etc. The city didn't even want the state to take it over, which would not have happened without the investment and influence the race started to put back into Belle Isle. The race brings in over $50 million in economic benefit to the region each year and showcases our beautiful city, which after a long storied and corrupt past is absolutely needed. It appears too often and early people forget those who give back to make things better and just want to criticize and complain!

Carol Rhoades
Thu, 09/14/2017 - 1:44pm

Sorry to say that inflated "economic benefit" is NOT true at all! The race fans come to the island, buy a few sandwiches and drinks then leave so those vendors make a few bucks. The city has come back with all the new restaurants, renovated buildings and millennials living downtown, West Village now has Craftwork, Red Hook, Vegan Soul, plus 2 yoga places, a new burger and pizza place coming and a New Orleans style restaurant, a bike shop, Sister Pie, La Boheme, Coe building, Belle Isle Pizza, a new florist shop, A Wine Shop, a Charcuterie Shop, and Platform is building a new complex on Grand Blvd and developing the old Big Boy site on Jefferson across from the island. Detroit doesn't need this noisy, polluting race to show anyone how great we are! The city is back!

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 1:20pm


Stand Up Detroit
Tue, 09/19/2017 - 10:17am

"Dead bodies galore and high crime?" Sounds like propaganda or a movie to me!! Can we have a little truth here please.

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 8:44pm

I am surprised That "The Roger Penske" isn't listening to the public and just letting his people ruin a pristine oasis in the concrete jungle of Detroit . I understand he has power in Detroit and affects many decisions eventually made by the mayor. Money is power isn't it.
By selfishly doing his best to ruin Belle Isle in spite of the many residents comments and wishes he is besmirching his reputation for fairness and good business practices that many use to admired him for.
Is he losing control of his empire to his profit only underlings or suddenly just doesn't care about Detroit's residents?

Will the real Roger Penske please step forward so the people of Detroit see you not for what you were but what you are now?

Doug Leithauser
Fri, 09/15/2017 - 10:15am

I am all in favor of the race. It helps raise the image of Detroit significantly. It is difficult for outsiders to think of Detroit as the "murder city" when watching TV coverage of a professional level road race on a beautiful island setting. It's hard to put a dollar value on that, but it is significant. It brings money to the island and the city. i do agree that the time allotted to the race preparations should be kept to a minimum for the sake of other island users.

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 5:05pm

Michael Betzold- I would ban you for life from Belle Isle. Keep your bike riding on Jefferson and Van Dyke Avenues.

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 1:16pm

It is hard to understand why folks wouldn't want a permanent racetrack somewhere else in Detroit. Spread it around! So many reasons for the race cars to leave the island. Why can't Detroit get wholly behind natural spaces? 19c thinking, an outdated legacy thst must be undone. Penske could lead and be the hero if he could figure that out. Too self interested.

Stand Up Detroit
Tue, 09/19/2017 - 10:20am