Detroit – Detroit Grand Prix organizers will assert their case for continued racing Friday during the monthly meeting of the Belle Isle Advisory Committee.
Having reduced their time on the island by nearly a third since the IndyCar Series and other forms of motorsport returned in 2012, the organizers intend to make public highlights of the proposal they will submit to the state Department of Natural Resources.
Critics say staging auto racing in a public park over the course of two months is not a proper use of the state park, leased from the city.
The organizers will seek permission to race for “several years,” a shorter duration than the original 10-year agreement between the organizers and the City of Detroit, Bud Denker, the executive vice-president of the Penske Corporation, said Thursday.
Denker, who was appointed by former Mayor Dave Bing to the advisory committee, also said it is up to the state to determine the necessity for an independent environmental review.
An array of organizations, officials and hundreds of people who have signed an online petition have requested a study.
The highlights of the organizer’s request, and then the formal proposal, will be posted on the DNR and Belle Isle Advisory Committee websites, with an option for the public to submit written comments, according to Ron Olson, chief of the Parks and Recreation Division.
Within a few weeks, DNR will schedule a date for another meeting of the Belle Isle Advisory Committee (BIPAC), at which it will reveal the results of its review of the racing proposal.
At that meeting, Olson said, the public can comment on the proposal and the results of the state review.
As the chief of state parks and recreation, Olson will then make the decision.
“We have not seen any proposal yet,” Olson said.
“The BIPAC members will have the opportunity (Friday) to ask questions on the highlights of the terms. The public will have a chance to comment.
“And then, we will conduct our review of the proposal after that.”
Meanwhile, the opportunity for public comment will continue online.
“The PowerPoint will be posted on the website because there may be people who are interested in this who are not at the meeting, and this will give them a chance to provide comment,” Olson said.
“We will have a feedback link, an email address where people can comment, associated with that.”
The advisory committee usually meets the third week of the month. But Olson said the current meeting was rescheduled to Friday because committee members were unavailable next week or later in July, and it was decided not to wait until August.
DNR changed the date two weeks ago, he said.
Denker, a former chairman of the Detroit Grand Prix, is a member of the Belle Isle Advisory Committee, appointed by the former Mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing.
The organizers presentation Friday will be made by Michael Montri, the president of the Detroit Grand Prix, and a vice-president of the Penske Automotive Group.
Montri will tout a 65-day staging period for the races in 2018, down from 95 days in 2012.
The Penske organization also provided greater access to the western end of the island, with its grand view of the Detroit and Windsor skylines and the Ambassador Bridge, during the idyllic spring months of May and June.
By installing the entire interior wall of the race track first, before starting on the outside wall, it allowed access to the riverbanks for a longer period.
It also left greater access to the Douglas MacArthur Bridge through Memorial Day, by changing the traffic pattern on key roads.
Denker and Montri say the desire to provide as much public access during the staging is a response to public complaints.
A host of environmental groups, community organizations and others urge the state to request an independent environmental study of the impact of the staging and racing.
They include the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, state Representative Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, and former state legislator Rashida Tlaib, who is running for congress to replace John Conyers.
Among the environmental concerns are a massive concrete apron laid down north of the Belle Isle Casino and east of the architect Cass Gilbert’s James Scott Memorial Fountain to support the myriad of infield operations of the Raceway on Belle Isle, and the impact of the racing itself on flora and fauna.
Managed by the state as a state park as part of a 30-year lease with the city, Belle Isle is the largest city-owned island park in the United States and the third-largest island in the Detroit River (Grosse Ile, Fighting Island).
The area is significant for wildlife.
“It lies at the intersection of the Mississippi and Atlantic migratory flyways, which is used by over 350 bird species each spring and fall," said Erin Rowan, research coordinator for Detroit Audubon.
“The Detroit River is an internationally recognized Important Bird Area.
“Belle Isle acts as a great stopover site for these neotropical migrants to rest-up and re-fuel along their long journey.”
While many of the migratory waterfowl are found at the eastern end of the island, where sizeable, tree-and-grass sheltered ponds provide habitat, migrating warblers and other birds use the western end, according to the Audubon society and birders.
Some waterfowl and other birds also nest there, they said.
Denker did not discourage a review.
“Well, that’s the DNR’s consideration, because they’re obviously the steward of the island,” he said.
“We have to understand that the cars are operating on a majority ethanol fuel. Also, because we bus the fans on and off, there’s actually less vehicles on the island that weekend.
“But, as you look at the other pieces, as to the environmental factors involved, I leave that to the DNR for consideration, versus ourselves.”
He said the Penske organization continually responds to public criticism of staging motorsport on Belle Isle.
“We made a lot of changes to the event this past year,” Denker said.
“In 2015, it took us 95 days for buildup and takedown, and this year we did it in 65 days, our lowest ever.”
Good weather helped, he said.
“We’ll propose a further time reduction Friday in that session, as well.
“We’re responding to those who are concerned about us being on Belle Isle, especially for that period of time during these key summer months.”
By allowing Central Avenue to remain open past Memorial Day, in the weeks just prior to the races, access to the MacArthur Bridge increased, this year, Denker said.
“That allowed a much more efficient process in term of getting on and getting off. And, those are all changes we made, frankly, by listening to the public and their concerns,” he said.
“Hopefully, we’ll continue to have good ideas come our way, as well.”
Auto Show connection?
A gala associated with the Detroit Grand Prix raised $1 million for the Belle Isle Conservancy, this year, and the racing has contributed to $13 million in infrastructure improvements since 2012.
“We’ve got to understand the positive it brings, in addition to people’s concerns about it,” Denker said.
Asked about having the Detroit Grand Prix during, or at about the same time, of the Detroit Auto Show, which planners are considering moving to June, Denker was exuberant about the potential impact.
“My gosh, if it were to happen around June, can you imagine what the magnitude of it would be in the city?” Denker said.
“By having the techno festival (Movement Electronic Music Festival) on Memorial Day weekend, our event kicking off the summer on Belle Isle and having the auto show, having the PGA event coming for the month of June, the riverfront festival (Detroit Riverdays) for that period of time and the fireworks, it could possibly be a Lollapalooza or South by Southwest event for our city.
“We haven’t gotten any confirmation of that, for ourselves,” Denker said. “But we can only imagine what that would mean.”
What: Belle Isle Advisory Committee monthly meeting. Detroit Grand Prix organizers will present highlights of their proposal to continue IndyCar racing on Belle Isle for several years.
When: Friday, 9 a.m.
Where: Detroit Boat Club, Belle Isle (near the Douglas MacAurthur Bridge)