Mleczko: Red Bull Race on Belle Isle Raises Question About Purpose of State Park
Photo by Lorraine Mleczko
June 7th, 2015, 8:51 PM
The writer, a former Detroit News reporter and former head of the Detroit Newspaper Guild, initially wrote this on Facebook. The Red Bull Global Rallycross race car contest will be on Belle Isle July 25-26.
By Lou Mleczko
The announcement last week that the state Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR) has approved a contract for the Red Bull Global Rallycross on Belle Isle in July raises a basic question: What exactly is the purpose of a state park?
We keep being told that Belle Isle is a "public park", but as the tear down of the Grand Prix track continues, the public has virtually no access to the west end of the island where the Scott Fountain, Casino and Sunset Point are located.
What other state park in Michigan allows motor sport racing like we're experiencing at Belle Isle? Local broadcast and print media repeatedly boast of the park improvements made by Penske Inc., but what they don't tell their readers and viewers is that these improvements are limited only to the race track area of Belle Isle.
The new sewer drains, pavement and fountain repairs have thus far been only to make sure the race track is viable and that the west one-third of the island looks beautiful for the TV cameras
Go to the remaining two-thirds of Belle Isle and visitors will still find standing water on roads, virtually no picnic tables outside of a handful of designated shelters, a few park benches rotted and unusable, scrub undergrowth and wild trees blocking the views of the river especially along the south Strand Dr. that faces Canada. We hear repeated references to the $13 million spent by Penske for the track area improvements.
What we don’t hear is whatever happened to the supposed state financial resources that would be budgeted for Belle Isle?
Instead, we hear the top officers of the DNR and the Belle Isle Conservancy talk about “partnering” with corporate entities like Red Bull, Penske or Quicken Loans.
“This is something that popped up, we went to the advisory committee to get input, and there’s a lot of support on the economic side,” said Ron Olson, the chief of parks and recreation for the state’s 102 state parks in an interview with Free Press columnist Nancy Kaffer.
“This will be televised (Red Bull event July 25-26) internationally as part of a circuit, so it’s kind of trading off benefit and impact.” There were no public meetings or hearings about having a second motor sport event on the island. DNR and Red Bull presented it last week as a fait accompli.
Olson presented this plan to the Conservancy last month, and there was nothing on the Conservancy calendar of coming events that even mentioned the Red Bull event. Conservancy President Michelle Hodges tells Kaffer: “We’re in that uncomfortable stage of not having all that we need to be good decision makers.”
Hodges said she and the DNR are awaiting a $218,000 strategic study due later this year, but in the meantime, corporate for-pay events like Red Bull continue to be booked onto the island. “Until then, it’s hard to say yes or no to, and honestly, we don’t have the authority to say yes or no,” Hodges says to the Free Press.
DNR’s Olson says he hadn't received any “negative feedback” concerning the Red Bull event. But the contract he approved was made long before the public learned of the race last week.
And that announcement came from Red Bull -- not the DNR or the Conservancy. This trend flies in the face of repeated statements from the DNR and the Belle Isle Conservancy that they want “robust public participation.”
What is more troubling and ominous are statements made by Olson to Kaffer that soon the DNR will be reviewing other events Red Bull wants to bring to Belle Isle. Olson denied that Red Bull was “going to try to buy their way onto the island.”
But he acknowledged that Red Bull is now trying to become a “major sponsor” of Belle Isle in much the same way Penske and Quicken Loans are sponsors.
Has the DNR made the decision, at the urging of Gov. Snyder, that any expenditures for Belle Isle improvements must come from corporately-sponsored events? Penske’s investments in the west end of the island are not benevolent.
They are of, by and for the Grand Prix and other motor sports races. The rest of the public has been segregated to the island's eastern two-thirds. I visited during the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
When I attempted to access the Scott Fountain, a Penske security guard waived me off. I said “this is a public park” and he responded: “You have the rest of the island.”