Grand Prix backers, opponents discuss Belle Isle impact

Ursula Watson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Lovers of Belle Isle who fear the park is being reduced to a race track sounded off at the Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee meeting Thursday morning.

Several attendees expressed their disdain for May’s Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, which they say damaged the park and limited public access to parts of the park.

Mary Ellen Howard, a long-time Detroit resident, lives near the bridge to Belle Isle —and like many at the meeting— is not a fan of the race nor one local automotive industry mogul.

“Roger Penske has had his way with Belle Isle for way too long,” Howard said during the public comments portion of the meeting at the Belle Isle Boat Club. “The noise, the pollution, the damage, the cement, the lack of access are not acceptable. I can hear the Grand Prix loud and clear at my house, more than a mile away.”

Howard’s comments were met with rousing applause.

Like many who spoke, Howard was concerned about the stretches of concrete in the park for the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix and the months long set-up and take-down.

“We have to stop selling our island and our city to the highest bidder,” she said.

Another concern is the Red Bull Global Rallycross possibly coming to the park, Howard said.

“I could scream. I am very disappointed that the (Department of Natural Resources) is expanding this travesty by adding the Red Bull Race,” she said. “Belle Isle is a park, not a race track.”

The DNR recently took over management of the park for 30 years from the city of Detroit as part of the bankruptcy process. The city still owns the park.

After the meeting Ron Olson, DNR’s chief of parks and recreation said the Red Bull Global Rallycross is not a done deal.

In addition to the race conflicting with booked events at the park, the concerns expressed at Thursday’s meeting are being weighed.

“We raised the concerns expressed today with the promoters,” said Olson, who is also a Belle Isle Park Advisory member. “We believe that we need to make sure that we stand up for those who use the island and we are not going to dismiss those concerns.”

If approved the race would be held in July and the $25,000 donation from Red Bull would be used for park improvements.

There were supporters of the Grand Prix, such as Cedric Johnson.

Johnson, a member of the Detroit Grand Prix Association said he looks forward to the race each year. The association is made up of more than 3,000 volunteers, many of whom are seniors.

He said the open-wheeled car race provides seniors with a chance to be active and involved with Belle Isle. Johnson said he was surprised at those who weren’t pleased with the racing event.

“I didn’t know there were so many people with so many objections,” he said. “Now that I have heard those objections ... they are worth looking into.”

Betty Roberts and her family are Grand Prix fans, who have also traveled throughout Europe to see some of the top car races.

But for Roberts, the Detroit Grand Prix is at the top of list.

“This is the most beautiful venue we have ever seen and it showcases Detroit in the most positive way,” she said. “The first year they moved the race to Belle Isle, I opposed it. The second year, I went and I haven’t stopped coming back.”

Michele Hodges, Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee chair, said that listening to the concerns of lovers of the park is important and necessary. Hodges is also president of the non-profit Belle Isle Conservancy.

“It is a wonderful opportunity and it gets uncomfortable at moments but the end results is going to be a strengthened community and solutions that we have come to together,” she said.

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