Future of Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle unclear

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
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The Detroit Grand Prix boasts $45 million to $50 million annually in economic development, according to organizers. ​​​​​It draws between 90,000 and 100,000 fans.

Detroit — The future of the Detroit Grand Prix remains up in the air as an existing agreement to host it on Belle Isle is set to run out this year and organizers discuss whether to drive ahead.

State Department of Natural Resources officials told Detroit City Council on Tuesday during an annual briefing on the island's progress that an existing five-year agreement to host the race was 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. 

"So far, we have not received a request for going forward in the future," said Ron Olson, parks chief for the state DNR. "Right now, we're just taking care of this year, and we'll have to see when and if we get a proposal and then evaluate it."

The Grand Prix festivities have been a source of contention for some resident groups who have complained about the timetable required to set up and tear down the event as well as the restrictions it places on access to certain portions of the 982-acre island between April and June.

The three-day racing event boasts $45 million to $50 million annually in economic development, according to organizers. It draws between 90,000 and 100,000 fans, primarily from Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties. 

Grand Prix Chairman Bud Denker told The Detroit News on Tuesday there aren't any other locations within the city that would be viable for hosting the event, including suggested sites such as Detroit's City Airport and the former State Fairgrounds. Organizers, he said, aren't looking to move the event outside of the city, either.

"There's no option B. It's Belle Isle," said Denker, noting if they decide against holding the race on the island "it would disappear." 

Read more: Detroit Grand Prix yields to Belle Isle daffodils

Denker on Tuesday said changes have been made to minimize the footprint of the Grand Prix as well as the length of time that it restricts access to some portions of the island. Setup and tear-down were reduced by one week this year, kicking off in April and anticipated to be completed by June 23.

Organizers, he said, also took steps to keep the west end perimeter by the water open three weeks longer for public access.

"We hear them and we're compromising," Denker said. "But, we also have 90,000 people who will be down there that are proponents of the event as well, too. We're trying to find that balance and we've made these changes as a result of that."

Sandra Novacek, a coordinator of Belle Isle Concern, a group of park users advocating for the protection of the park, said the changes don't address the underlying issue of maintaining the integrity of the park. Residents aren't against the race, she said, but they don't think it belongs on the island.

“It’s kind of like somebody beating you 100 days out of the year and then reducing it down to 80. It still hurts,” Novacek said. “The race violates the mission of the park. You don’t see a race like that in Central Park or any other state park in Michigan."

The group, she added, is planning a rally from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday at the entrance of Belle Isle to protest the race being held there and advocate for the park's preservation. This year's race is being held June 1-3.

Denker said officials expect to make a determination by June or July. When asked if fans should be worried about the fate of the racing event, Denker said: "We don't know yet. We're debating it."

The Grand Prix has taken place on Belle Isle periodically since 1992 and every year since 2012. The Grand Prix currently pays a $200,000 fee each year to put on the event. 

Separately, Olson on Tuesday touted climbing attendance rates on Belle Isle. For 2017, the island had 4.2 million visitors making it the largest attended state park in the United States.

"This gets more visitors by far than Mackinac Island," he told council members. 

The latest attendance figures are up from a reported 4.1 million visitors in the 2016 fiscal year and 3.6 million in 2015, DNR data shows.

Data provided Tuesday shows total investment on Belle Isle since 2014 is about $48 million. 

Recreational passport participation in Detroit for visiting the park is up just over 3 percent, and about $468,000 has been generated through permits, rentals, events and donations, all of which will benefit the island.

Michigan State Police Lt. Mike Shaw did not cite specific figures but reiterated, as in past years, that there haven't been major incidents at the island, which is patrolled 24 hours a day by state police and DNR conservation officers.

He noted that no arrests have been made in the last two years during the city's annual fireworks display. 

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