Can one event hold back progress on Belle Isle? Th...

Can one event hold back progress on Belle Isle? These activists think so.

A 1990s bargain pitted the Detroit Grand Prix against residents who fear the race is destroying the island park.

Race track for Detroit Grand Prix shown on Belle Isle island park

As spring emerges, two things start to happen on Belle Isle: Detroiters use the island with more frequency, and organizers of the Grand Prix begin setup for the IndyCar race. Unfortunately, the two conflict with each other. 

The annual event typically only lasts a weekend, but setup and disassembly takes around 60 days. That’s an improvement from a few years ago when the process took as long as 120 days, which was once “the longest of any race in the world,” according to the Metro Times. 

During this time, access to the more used western half of the island — which contains popular attractions like the Belle Isle Conservatory and Aquarium, James Scott Memorial Fountain and Sunset Point — is restricted for around 20 days. The race also requires the erection of fencing, concrete walls and billboards, supported by a fleet of semi-trucks and construction equipment. The event is both an eyesore and a hindrance for regular users of the park, and it takes place in late May or early June, when visitorship is on the rise. (The race will be held on the first two weekends of June this year, with the same number of events as in past years.)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the big investments being made at the 982-acre Belle Isle, the largest island park in the United States. Since the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) began managing the park in 2014 as part of a 30-year lease negotiated during Detroit’s bankruptcy, it’s invested around $50 million in various projects, like replacing the conservatory’s steel trusses and adding new trails. A garden by world-renowned designer Piet Oudolf is set to bloom this spring in a spot once used by the Grand Prix. Other island partners, like the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, have put money into their facilities as well. 

While all that spending can’t be discounted, especially when the Belle Isle Conservancy estimates the island still has about $300 million in deferred maintenance, some park lovers say they’d trade it all to ensure the Grand Prix never takes place on the island again. 

Concern for the island’s visitors — and wildlife inhabitants

“We are against the Grand Prix being held on Belle Isle; it’s just not an appropriate place for it to be,” said Sandra Novacek, a member of the grassroots group Belle Isle Concern, which advocates for moving the Grand Prix off Belle Isle. “Over half the island is developed already. Why don’t we instead promote ecotourism, the new garden, the beautiful forest — all these natural features and wildlife? Let’s promote that beauty and keep this precious place a precious place.”

To the members of Belle Isle Concern, the race directly conflicts with the purpose of the island: enjoying its natural scenery, whether that’s birdwatching, taking a hike, picnicking in a shed or simply gazing out over the water. Though the Grand Prix doesn’t prevent people from partaking in these activities, except on the weekend of the race, it certainly disrupts the experience. 

“The whole landscape on that part of the island becomes more like a suburban mall than a public, natural park,” said Michael Betzold, a journalist and member of Belle Isle Concern. “This island, which is so unique in the country, to be used in this manner, is just so inappropriate.”

The DNR says it hosts large sporting events at other parks around the state, like hydroplane boat races at Pontiac Lake Recreation Area and the 10-day Coast Guard Festival at Grand Haven State Park. But neither of these events compare in scale to the Grand Prix, cause as much disruption or take place at parks with as many visitors as Belle Isle.

How a raceway ended up on an island park 

The Grand Prix has been held in Detroit since 1982, and for a while took place downtown. According to Patrick Cooper-McCann, an assistant professor of urban studies at Wayne State University who has studied the history of parks in Detroit, the city proposed moving the race to Belle Isle in 1989. At first, the former advocacy group Friends of Belle Isle objected to the move. But after a financial crisis struck the city, the group relented. 

“The city was broke, so the Friends of Belle Isle dropped their formal objection — to their immediate regret,” Cooper-McCann said. “The premise was that it would be one loud, crazy weekend, but that the organizers were going to donate money and help contribute to the upkeep of the island, which wasn’t in great shape. That’s been the bargain ever since.”

In the years since, the island has become more heavily paved, including a 400,000-square-foot concrete paddock and widened streets. “You’d never design a park the way that part of the island is today,” Cooper-McCann said. “It’s more like a raceway. There are no safe pedestrian and bicycle routes. It’s designed for cars to go 180 miles per hour.”

In 2018, the DNR renewed its contract with the Grand Prix largely on financial grounds. An assessment of the event by the DNR that recommended renewal said that the event brings additional publicity to the park and adds essential funding for operating expenses through fees and charity events. 

The case for the race

“Big cities have big events,” Ron Olson, the DNR’s chief of Parks and Recreation, told Detour Detroit. “It’s iconic and puts Detroit on a world stage. Also, the Grand Prix has helped Detroit immensely by stimulating the local economy and through investments made to the park.”

The DNR’s assessment cites $58 million in local spending generated by the event — a figure that came from a study commissioned by the Grand Prix and conducted by SportsImpacts, which does market research on sports events. The $450,000 in annual fees and contributions paid by the Grand Prix more than offsets the $142,300 in lost rental revenue from shelters and other park facilities. 

“We are proud of the contributions the Grand Prix has made to Belle Isle,” Michael Montri, president of the Grand Prix, told Detour by email. “There was a lot of work that needed to be done on the island when the Grand Prix returned to Detroit and it became a primary focus of the event to help restore Belle Isle and create lasting improvements that make a difference on the island.”

Montri cited investments like replacing lights and fixtures on the MacArthur Bridge and repairs to the Scott Fountain and the Belle Isle Casino, as well as building new bridges and resurfacing roadways. 

The Grand Premiere, an annual fundraising gala held prior to the race, has raised anywhere from $600,000 to over $1 million annually. The proceeds go to the Belle Isle Conservancy, which operates the aquarium, allowing admission to remain free. The Grand Prix was cancelled in 2020, along with the gala, which put a dent in the conservancy’s finances. 

“It was a big hit,” said Michele Hodges, executive director of the Belle Isle Conservancy. “We took salary cuts and had to move into a very austere mode.”

Hodges takes a conciliatory approach to the sensitive topic of the race, recognizing the concerns of park users and advocating for ways to “minimize its negative consequences.” But she also believes that “the public sector alone cannot support the operation and maintenance of the park.” 

While the conservancy does not ultimately decide whether or not to renew the contract, Hodges says she’s working to reduce her organization’s reliance on the Grand Prix. “Healthy nonprofits have diverse revenue streams. But that does not happen overnight.”

Questions over environmental impact

Belle Isle Concern also contends that the event has caused damage to the island’s landscape, including harming trees and soil. One year, heavy rains resulted in vehicles tearing up grassy areas. 

“Afterwards, you can see the damage that they leave behind,” said Angela Lugo-Thomas, another member of Belle Isle Concern. “The event really does destroy Belle Isle.”

Olsen downplays the environmental issues from the race, saying that any damage was unfortunate but also “repaired at the Grand Prix’s expense.” The DNR’s assessment found minimal impact on wildlife and that exhaust from the racecars is comparable to emissions from cars on a normal spring day. Belle Isle Concern contests that the DNR has never done a thorough study of the race’s environmental impact. 

Because of the race’s cancellation last year, the DNR extended its contract with the Grand Prix for an additional year through 2022, even though there was no such stipulation in the original agreement. There’s also an option to renew it for another two years. 

When those negotiations are underway, the vocal members of Belle Isle Concern will be there, advocating for their cause. “There are no signs that leadership wants the race to end,” Betzold said. “But when the issue of renewing it comes up, hopefully there’s going to be a big fight.”

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.