Grand Prix’s future on Belle Isle under debate

Christine Ferretti

Detroit — Dozens of impassioned residents and race fans packed the Belle Isle Nature Center on Wednesday to make a case on the Detroit Grand Prix’s fate on the island.

Regina Kuper, who lives nearby on Jefferson, was among those urging the state not to renew the annual race, citing environmental worries and inconvenience.

“Belle Isle is a totally inappropriate place to hold a race of that magnitude,” said Kuper, adding it “holds the island hostage” for 11 weeks or more during prime months of the year.

“Imaging planning a family reunion, wedding or graduation during that time period. Imagine having heavy trucks and equipment … blocking some of the best features of the island. What do the races do to the wildlife and infrastructure of the island?”

The public input session drew a crowd of about 100 and spanned more than two hours. It was the first being held by state parks officials to gather feedback as they consider whether the race should continue on the island.

The Grand Prix has taken place on Belle Isle periodically since 1992 and every year since 2012.

The current five-year agreement with Detroit was in place and honored by the state when the DNR assumed management of the island as a state park Feb. 10, 2014, under a 30-year lease agreement with the city. The existing agreement runs through 2018, officials said.

A new deal would allow the island to remain the site for Grand Prix events.

A contingent of residents and City Council members have regularly expressed concern over the timetable required for setup and tear-down of the annual event as well as restricted access to certain parts of the 982-acre island from April to June.

The Grand Prix this year had eight weeks to setup and three for tear-down. Organizers said they had committed to reducing the setup time to six weeks. Last year, it had been 10 weeks.

Ed Weglarz, a volunteer manager with the Grand Prix, was among those advocating to maintain an agreement, noting visitors enjoy the races and the venue.

“No other race in the country has that kind of national and international coverage. By moving it somewhere else, you are going to lose that big advantage,” he said. “This is a bad time to get off the bandwagon.”

Ron Olson, the DNR’s parks and recreation division chief, noted Wednesday evening the race has a long history in the city. Thus far, the motorsports event has operated within its existing agreement.

“The question would be what kind of parameters and terms would be tolerable and reasonable in the future if we choose to continue,” said Olson, noting the setup and tear-down time is an issue of concern, but it’s a trade-off that comes along with a large event.

Organizers this spring said the three-day event accounts for $45 million to $50 million in economic development each year and last year attracted 95,000 visitors.

Olson said state parks officials hope to have a proposal from the Grand Prix based on continued community input before the end of the year. The state will then evaluate all the pluses and minuses and make a determination, he said.

“That’s why we’re having a meeting to make sure all the thoughts and perspectives are listened to,” he said. “It’s traditionally been on the island, it’s unique. My personal opinion about it is one thing. What’s right or wrong in the collective consideration of all the things is another.”

The event has also been good for area businesses, said Judy Booth, director of sales and marketing for the Detroit Marriott. The hotel employs more than 400 full- and part-time associates, and the Grand Prix draws fans and racers to the area and helps keep dozens of additional housekeepers on the clock.

“I remember thinking how grateful I was that an economic event like the Grand Prix was finally returning to our city,” she said. “It was finally some good news for Detroit. It’s important that we remember that events like this keep our community employed.”

Others who attended Wednesday’s meeting said they are urging the state Department of Natural Resources to commission a third-party environmental impact study on race effects on island habitat.

Michael Betzold, a Detroit resident and member of the grassroots group Belle Isle Concern, joined more than a dozen other environmental groups and activists requesting the assessment.

“We’ve already determined that people who use the park do not want this race in the park. Something is wrong here,” he said. “The Grand Prix is a great event, but it does not belong on Belle Isle, not any more than an indoor soccer match belongs in the DIA’s Rivera Court. Take this race somewhere else.”

Written comments are being accepted via email at through Sept. 22.

If a proposed agreement is drafted, officials said it will be made available for public review.