A Grand Balance

The Belle Isle Grand Prix brings money, commerce, and exposure to Detroit, but some parkgoers think reduced accessibility to the island doesn’t add up to a victory

Almost every spring, a small city grows on the west end of Belle Isle. Concrete blocks are installed along the roadways, buses shuttle visitors across the MacArthur Bridge, and 20-some miles of steel cable are stretched around a 2.3-mile race course.

If you’re a race fan in Detroit, it’s the most exciting time of the year. But if you’re a frequent parkgoer, April, May, and June on Belle Isle can be a headache.

Detroit’s beloved state park has been home to some form of auto racing intermittently for years. Once held on city streets near the Renaissance Center, the first iteration of the Grand Prix moved to Belle Isle from 1992 until 2001. Under the guidance of Roger Penske, the race rejoined the IndyCar circuit in 2007 with another hiatus from 2009-12 due in large part to the economic woes of the Great Recession.

When it is held, however, the Grand Prix is a major attraction, gathering 95,000 visitors annually and generating over $40 million in local spending.

But parkgoers and residents of the nearby neighborhoods like West Village and Indian Village have become more vocal about the race’s viability on the island, citing damages to the park’s facilities, along with excessively long setup periods that infringe on their ability to use the west end of the park.

In 2014, Helen Gentry filed a lawsuit against Penske Automotive Group, arguing that the race violated DNR rules by harming the natural environment among other things. Gentry lost the case, but in 2015, the race’s build schedule reignited complaints.

“Last year they started setting up way far in advance, like in March,” says Kathy Beltaire, a West Village resident for over 40 years. “Lots of people in the neighborhood use (Belle Isle) on a weekly basis, if not more. It interferes with their regular use.”

Last July, State Rep. Stephanie Chang, whose district includes Belle Isle, held an open town hall meeting for residents to discuss the Grand Prix and other Belle Isle issues. Chang says that most of the concerns she heard at the meeting weren’t so much about hosting the race, but about the setup schedule.

“Most people wanted to make sure that the public has access to enjoy the island for a greater number of days before setup starts,” Chang says.

Those concerns didn’t fall on deaf ears. Organizers reduced the 2016 setup from 10 weeks to eight. “We fully understand,” says Belle Isle Grand Prix Chairman Bud Denker. “We have to close (Belle Isle) the week before our event, but for the seven weeks leading up to our race, access is available.” They also tear down in three weeks, finishing before the Ford fireworks.

By comparison, however, the Long Beach Grand Prix takes 60 days to build by contract with that city. The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in Florida includes a construction period of 35 days.

Despite the shortened schedule, residents are still wary of allowing auto racing in a public park. Beltaire says that in West Village, a larger debate lingers.

“We understand that it’s a good money maker and it makes the city look good and all that,” she says. “But a lot of people are opposed to having any kind of racing on Belle Isle, mainly because of the environmental damage (and) damage to the infrastructure.”

Last year, race fans damaged park grounds as heavy rains fell on temporary parking lots. On Penske’s dime, the Grand Prix team repaired the grass, and this year, Denker says if rain is in the forecast, organizers plan to keep fans parked on pavement.

Damages and schedules aside, it seems that most area residents approve of such events. A fall 2015 survey conducted by the DNR found that about two-thirds of Detroit residents who visited the park in the past year, as well as those who did not, felt Belle Isle was an appropriate location for large-scale events such as the Grand Prix. The study surveyed 717 residents from Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties.

“There are people that come to us and say ‘We don’t like the Grand Prix, it doesn’t belong,’ and things like that, but we always say that it’s a tradeoff, it’s a balance,” says Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation with the DNR. “We believe that as long as we continue a reasonable balance between things and keep working towards the betterment of Belle Isle, (the Grand Prix) is still overall a good thing, but it’s something we have to keep our eye on.”

At the Belle Isle Conservancy, the sentiment is similar. Michele Hodges, president of the conservancy, says that while the organization benefits from its own annual Grand Prixmiere charity event — a fundraiser that secured $1.1 million for the conservancy during race weekend last year — the conservancy listens closely to the voice of the park user.

“We seek to maximize the positive and minimize the negative aspects of any partner that we might be working with,” Hodges says. “It’s a delicate balance that we’re attempting to find and we’re getting there. Penske and his team have a long legacy of support and investment in this community, and we believe very much that they share our love for Belle Isle.”

Penske Automotive Group has worked to demonstrate a lasting interest in Belle Isle as a public park. Aside from an annual $200,000 rental fee to operate on the island, the group has invested $13 million in improvements to Belle Isle since 2007. Past projects have included resurfacing park roads, re-roofing picnic shelters, refurbishing the Belle Isle Casino, installing new lights on the MacArthur Bridge, and maintaining the Scott Memorial Fountain.

But aside from money, there are other benefits.

“Name how many annual events will have the national and international TV coverage we have,” Denker says. “ESPN and ABC will be broadcasting our race. The exposure that we gain across the country because of their five hours of coverage, how do you put a price tag on that?”

From an economic standpoint, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce has long supported the Grand Prix, both for its ability to attract visitors and secure media exposure. According to its president and CEO, Sandy Baruah, the lasting benefits outweigh the days lost to regular parkgoers.

“We’re talking about just a handful of days where the public doesn’t have free and unfettered access,” Baruah says. “And in exchange, we get to do something very much for the public good.”

As part of its pre-existing contract with the city of Detroit, the Grand Prix will remain on Belle Isle at least until 2018. After that, race organizers will enter contract negotiations with the DNR.

Until then, Beltaire says, residents understand that the race will continue to be a backyard fixture. “The fact of the matter is it’s there now,” she says. “And it will be there for the next few seasons.”