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Should the Detroit auto show park on Belle Isle?

What happens when the commons become a revenue generator?

It’s pretty irrational, when you stop and think about it, that Detroit’s largest festival happens each year in the dead of winter when most people would prefer to be hibernating. So it was unsurprising, but pretty exciting, to hear that the North American International Auto Show will be held in June starting in 2020, as organizers announced Monday. The revamped auto show is being pitched as a jubilant public festival in praise of all things auto, possibly with fewer days restricted to media and a less formal charity event. Taking the show outdoors isn’t just better for attendees — it’s a smarter way to highlight Detroit’s offerings and connect visitors to the entertainment, retail and transportation possibilities in the city.

Among a number of new locations and attractions the NAIAS is considering, one stood out — Belle Isle could be an “activation site” for “outdoor experiential activities.” Which raises the question: how do we use public space, especially at popular times when it’s already being parceled out for special events? Especially when those events subvert the intended use of that space and restrict public access?

Rod Alberts, NAIAS executive director, said in a statement that they see “the potential to create a month long automotive festival in Detroit starting with the Detroit Grand Prix,” which occurs a week earlier. Renderings for the new auto show include a water taxi stand next to the Detroit Princess Riverboat dock to take people to Belle Isle.

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Rendering of 2020 auto show, with water taxis to Belle Isle. 

With those brief mentions in their press release, NAIAS quietly inserted itself into a debate over access to public land that’s been going on for years. Protests of the Grand Prix on Belle Isle are growing stronger and are coming to a head this summer as the Department of Natural Resources considers whether to grant the event a permit for the next three years with the option for two one-year renewals; their previous permit expires this year (or possibly earlier). Grand Prix races have been held on the island off-and-on since 1992.

But the (still vague) pitch to put auto show events on Belle Isle raises, well, concerns for the Belle Isle Concern, a group of residents spearheading opposition to the Grand Prix’s use of the island. The group’s main objections are the short-term park closure during the race weekend as well as partial closures throughout April and May; the added concrete and construction noise at the natural site; and the environmental impact. Sandra Novacek, lead organizer for the Belle Isle Concern, believes the event runs counter to the DNR’s mission and to the Belle Isle Strategic Plan, which lists “conservation and stewardship of open spaces” as one of its core values.

Novacek and others residents voiced their objections to the Grand Prix proposal at a public meeting earlier this month. She doesn’t feel appeased by their compromises, which include starting setup a week later on April 14 and raising their financial contribution to the DNR by more than $150,000.  

“Having the Grand Prix limit access to Belle Isle for much of the spring is bad enough, and the idea of Auto Show events or activities in the park adds insult to that injury,” Novacek told Detour. “It’s a terribly outdated vision of what a great city should be…. No other city would dream of subverting such a unique and priceless public space to serve the interests of the automotive business.

“It seems like this chipping away, a gradual takeover,” she added. Belle Isle should be “for people, not for private activities.”

Public spaces are being privatized around the globe and closer to home (the ticketed MO POP music festival takes over West Riverfront Park this weekend), partially due to public funding cuts that leave public operators dependent on private partnerships for revenue. Writing in The Conversation about local pushback on a 2016 racing event at a London park, University of Westminster academic Andrew Smith suggested the trend of commercializing public spaces is attractive to cities looking to generate investment, but has negative implications.

“Hiring out parks to event companies has a symbolic impact too. It normalises the idea that public space can be ‘bought’ and fenced off,” Smith wrote. “Sanctioning commercial events sets a worrying precedent, which could be used to justify more permanent installations in the future.”

It’s also worth noting that the NAIAS announcement, by referencing the Grand Prix, seems to assume the race will go on as planned. Technically, the event’s fate is still up in the air. The DNR is soliciting public comment on the three-year permit and will make a determination after the comment period closes on Aug. 2. Grand Prix organizers have made it clear that if the state rejects their proposal, they don’t have a backup. Race chairman Bud Denker told the Detroit Free Press earlier this month that they “have no Plan B for this.… If it doesn’t occur on Belle Isle, it won’t happen in our area.”

Novacek questioned the timing of the NAIAS announcement, wondering if it gives the Grand Prix more leverage and puts pressure on the DNR to approve the contract. The auto show is a major economic force in the state, and public agencies may be eager to accommodate it. (NAIAS did not respond to our request for comment.)

Novacek, a Cass Corridor resident, thinks changing the date for the auto show makes a lot of sense, and is generally a cheerleader for the increased activity and events filling downtown and Midtown streets. But that’s all the more reason to protect Belle Isle, she said.

“It’s a respite, a place for people to escape to,” she said. “We need to be able to go there and be able to relax and enjoy it.”

Grand Prix officials have been dismissive of protesters, with Denker telling the Free Press in April that “there are some people you’re not going to make happy until there’s no event on Belle Isle. Even then, they’re not going to be happy about something.”

A recommendation to NAIAS, as they plan for 2020: don’t take a page out of the same playbook. If you want to create a celebratory festival for the people, make sure to listen to what they want — and then act on it. 

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