Penske to present plans for keeping Grand Prix on Belle Isle

Jul 10, 2018 at 10:22 am
click to enlarge One of many 2017 traffic jams on Belle Isle that were caused b the Grand Prix. - Moira Fracassa
Moira Fracassa
One of many 2017 traffic jams on Belle Isle that were caused b the Grand Prix.

As expected, billionaire Detroit Grand Prix organizer Roger Penske is rolling out a proposal to keep the controversial race on Belle Isle.

The plan will be presented Friday morning at a public meeting of the Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee (BIPAC) on Belle Isle. As of now, the meeting is the only chance the public has to provide input on a new contract.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources manages the 982-acre island park, which it leases from the city of Detroit. It has the final say in whether the race continues on the island, while BIPAC acts in a strictly advisory role.

The DNR has been negotiating with Penske's team behind close doors, and is expected to agree to a new contract. Race organizers say a contract expired this year, but a group opposed to the race says the race hasn't had a legal contract in place for several years, and has been running illegally.

It's not immediately clear what the process for approving a contract looks like after Friday's meeting. Metro Times reached out to Ron Olson, chief of the DNR's parks division, for clarification.

It's also worth noting that the DNR hasn't announced the public presentation to the media and changed the meeting date with little notice.

Regardless, opposition to the race is growing for a range of well-documented reasons — the race turns the island into a construction zone for at least nine weeks each year, and the damage it does to the island's grass takes much longer to remediate. The race restricts access to around 30 percent of Belle Isle's usable land for months, causes long traffic jams, and causes the island to overcrowd much quicker. The DNR has never conducted an environmental impact study, and Penske has covered the island in acres of concrete.

Though Penske's team claims the race provides a huge economic boost to Detroit, economists say that isn't true. Those type of issues led to the formation of Belle Isle Concern, a group working to get the race removed from the park. One of its organizers, Sandra Novacek, says the race simply doesn't belong in a public park.

"Belle Isle is a public park and natural resource that should provide free and unrestricted access to people every day of the year," she says. "The park is vital to the quality of life for citizens by helping them stay healthy. Running the Grand Prix on Belle is a detriment to the people, the land, the resources and the infrastructure."

It's quite possible that a new contract will prompt a lawsuit. As we previously reported, a local attorney working for Belle Isle Concern pro bono says there's a case to be made that the DNR can't legally hold the race on the island.

In short, the attorney says the state is supposed to keep public parks open and accessible to the public and maintain them for their intended purpose. State parks, of course, weren't created for billionaires to run races, and public access to the park is restricted for months at a time.

"Holding the Grand Prix in a public park violates the public trust and the mission and stewardship criteria of the DNR (and the Belle Isle Conservancy)," Novacek said.

She also questioned BIPAC's impartiality in the process, noting the ties among some of its members and Penske.

"At least three of the seven members of the committee have ties to Roger Penske," Novacek says. "Chairperson Michele Hodges is paid nearly $200,000 as president of the Belle Isle Conservancy, whose budget is buttressed by the annual Grand Prixmiere gala fundraiser. Sommer Woods is VP of external relations for M1 Rail — whose board Roger Penske chairs — and her firm has had contracts with the Grand Prix. Bud Denker, president of Penske Corp., also has a seat on the BIPAC."

The meeting will be held from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on July 13 at the Belle Isle Boat House.

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