The writer is a former Free Press reporter and a Deadline Detroit contributor. He is a member of Belle Isle Concern.
By Michael Betzold
Penske President Bud Denker tells Detroit City Council members this week that the Penske folks have looked at the State Fairgrounds, City Airport, and perhaps other locations around the city and have somehow determined they’re not workable for the Grand Prix.
So, he says, it’s Belle Isle or no race. If we can’t hold the Prix there, Detroit will lose the event.
If Penske’s team has looked at other sites, who have they talked to? If they were serious about searching for an alternative location, you’d think they’d work with city leaders to find one. But council members haven’t been involved in any search.
I’m very familiar with this gambit. In fact, the original blackmailer is now the mayor of Detroit. When Tom Monaghan was bungling the Tigers’ quest for a new stadium, then-deputy Wayne County Executive Mike Duggan issued the threat for him, saying the Tigers would flee to Florida or somewhere if we didn’t use taxpayer millions to build them a more profitable new home. It was pure B.S.—there was no credible threat that the Tigers would skip town. But in Detroit, slavish corporate journalists will use their megaphone to amplify sports blackmailing rather than investigate whether there is any substance behind the threat.
If you buy the idea that there’s no possible venue in the city for a racetrack, you must not be aware of the empty tracts of land in Detroit where a million people used to live. Sure, you’d have to pick a site carefully to avoid displacing or disturbing residents. And Penske should pay the whole cost of building a track. But his race definitely doesn’t belong on Belle Isle, the most exquisite public space in Detroit.
Why would the DNR or any responsible stewards of Belle Isle even consider a new contract for this terribly disruptive and completely inappropriate event? Whether the set-up and tear-down lasts the current ridiculous time of all spring long or whether it can be cut down to something a little more tolerable is beside the point.
Denker said at Tuesday’s council session that the race attracts 60,000 to 90,000 fans each year. No matter what economic impact numbers its promoters concoct out of thin air, you have to ask: By what cockamamie “logic” would you ruin your most precious public venue for any length of time just to accommodate about the same number of fans who go to watch Tigers games on any of twelve weekends each summer?
Call the Bluff
So I say: Call the bluff, city council. Find a way to prohibit Penske from signing a new contract that would defile Belle Isle for years to come.
After all, the island still belongs to the city of Detroit; the state is only the leaseholder who must abide by the landlord’s terms. Go ahead and offer to work with the Penske folks to find a new site for the race, if they are so invested in helping the city as they claim to be. But what’s really the risk for the city in losing the equivalent of a medium-sized weekend-long baseball turnout?
Oh, I forgot. The telecast of the race brings tons of tourists to Detroit from all over the world! Chortle. City council asked about that too—and Denker said 75 percent of the fans come from the tri-county area and 10 percent from Canada (meaning, no doubt, mainly Windsor).
How many of the remaining 15 percent come from, say, San Diego, because they saw Belle Isle on a Grand Prix telecast? No, almost all surely come from Toledo or Port Huron or Ann Arbor or Monroe or Flint or Saginaw or Lansing or Kalamazoo -- just like Lions, Tigers, Red Wings, and Pistons fans.
The Grand Prix is not really all that grand. It's just a sporting event. Belle Isle, on its own, is incomparably more valuable to Detroit and its people.