Protesters on Belle Isle: 'Find a new place for your car race'

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Members of Belle Isle Concern members carry signs on Saturday in opposition to the Grand Prix race being held on Belle Isle.

Detroit — A small group of conservationists gathered outside Belle Isle Park Saturday to protest the annual Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix being held at the park. 

Protesters along Jefferson Avenue held signs reading "Protect the park," "Belle Isle is a park not a race track," and "Picnics not pit stops."

Belle Isle Concern organized the annual protest held on Saturday before the event opens to the public. The group believes Detroit's island park should be a public space for residents, not a private Indy racetrack. 

This is the fourth year the group has protested the annual event, and organizer Sandra Novacek says it will continue to do so as long as the race continues there.

"Each year, the Grand Prix footprint on Belle Isle has gotten larger," Novacek said. "The worse part is that it's an invasion of public space. This is a public park owned by the city and open to the people, not for a private event to block off 30% for a race."

Angela Lugo-Thomas from Highland Park said she documented two weeks of the race's six-week set up starting on April 22 and there's no reason the event should restrict the best parts of the island for two months.

"I found that in the first week, they had all the concrete set up and ready," said Lugo-Thomas, 47. "They could have the event today if they wanted to, but they choose to keep the west side of the park, sunset point and the fountains, blocked off.

"Those 10 acres of concrete they laid down wipes out trees. ... They've done a lot that people haven't noticed all saying it's for the benefit off Belle Isle when really it's for the benefit of the race," she said. "We're not against it, just find a new place for your car race."

Novacek says the race is intruding on Detroiters quality of life by restricting a portion of the park and is a "violation of the mission of the Department of Natural Resources' mission to preserve and protect natural spaces and greenways."

Belle Isle Concern believes Detroit's island park should be a public space for residents, not a private Indy racetrack.

Organizers of the race say it is an important part of the city's resurgence and has made more than $13.5 million in improvements to Belle Isle including better lighting, drainage and roadways, new bridges and renovations of the Scott Fountain and the Belle Isle Casino since the return of the event in 2007.

“We want to make sure visitors have the opportunity to enjoy all that the park has to offer throughout the year – not just on race weekend,"Grand Prix officials said. "The Detroit Grand Prix will continue to enhance the island and help make it a better place for the millions of people that visit Belle Isle annually."

Last year, the state of Michigan passed the extension of the agreement to host the Grand Prix on Belle Isle until 2021. As a result of the extension, race officials said they listened to public feedback and have since reduced the overall time spent on the island.

"In 2019, the total time on Belle Isle will be 60 days from build up to take down of the full Grand Prix venue – a reduction of more than a week from last year – and we have committed to shortening the process even further to under 60 days in 2020,” officials said.

The Grand Prix will offer three days of events on the raceway on Belle Isle from Friday to June 2, drawing nearly 100,000 fans, primarily from Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Wastenaw counties. 

Novacek says she's met with directors at the Department of Natural Resources to continue their message that the race's contract on the island should not be extended past 2021.

"Even though they say they're cutting back, it's still 60 days, that's two months of set up and tear down and that's an extremely long time for a one weekend-long event," she said. "We're not against the race, it just doesn't belong on the island and the fact that they're not even considering moving it anywhere else is what we are protesting."