Betzold: Grand Prix takeover of Belle Isle won't end until media lapdogs start biting

May 29, 2019, 9:40 AM

This Deadline Detroit contributor is a former Detroit Free Press reporter and member of the Belle Isle Concern.

By Michael Betzold

Detroit wears the mantle of a “comeback city.” It’s a makeover that’s been publicized worldwide. But it’s clear to me that Detroit is still provincial in one key sense: It’s a company town where the big shooters have a stranglehold on most meaningful decisions. The bosses – the “terrible” Ilitches, Gilbert and Penske – have the equivalent of Mafia-type control.

Grand Prix race on Belle Isle (Photo: DepositPhotos)

Besides having money and connections, it’s crucial to control the narrative. And especially when it comes to sports and their always-exaggerated benefits to the area, most of the corporate media in this town are as slavish as ever, if not more so.

The “Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear” has 28 sponsors, including The Detroit News and Free Press, WDIV and 20 radio stations. Each promotes the occupation of Belle Isle in its own way, but are all reliable lapdogs. It’s unclear whether money or other considerations are exchanged for partnership privileges, but it would be a huge surprise if free tickets or other perks for media execs and their families aren’t part of the package.

Having spent a good chunk of my Detroit life fighting first to preserve Tiger Stadium and now to take back Belle Isle from Roger Penske, I know what so-called preservationists are up against. Beyond that mischaracterization – what we really want is affordable access for ordinary people to common ground – the narrative promulgated through the bought-off media goes like this: Whatever the Mafioso who run this town want is a great boost for the local economy, and if you don’t pay us ransom, we’ll take our ball and go somewhere else.

In the case of public money for new venues, this blackmail is standard operating procedure. But in the fight to get a new baseball stadium in the 1990s, Tigers owner Tom Monaghan was so clueless that a prominent local official had to issue the empty threat (to move the club to Florida) for him. That official? Then-deputy county executive Mike Duggan.

The Grand Prix scam follows a similar script. Last summer, Penske honcho Bud Denker said there was “no Plan B,” so if the DNR didn’t extend the race contract, it was sayonara, Detroit. While that could be easily seen as a ploy, perhaps the public cost in the case of the Grand Prix is less immediately transparent than the hundreds of millions of precious tax dollars that went to funding Comerica and Little Ceasars Arena.

Another 'field of schemes'

A succinct way to characterize that came in a quote in a CityLab article by Brain Allnutt, posted this week. According to Charles Birnbaum of The Culture Landscape Foundation in DC, auctioning off the “irreplaceable parkland” of Belle Isle – part of the public trust – is “no different than the Detroit Institute of Art . . . selling off artwork.”

The price we pay is papered over by figures perpetrated by the Grand Prix PR machine – repeated ad nauseum. These numbers are too flimsy to withstand any real scrutiny – but don’t worry, the “media partners” won’t question them. They’re supposedly based on a study no one has seen by a sports industry PR firm Penske hired, which means they’re dart-board friendly. Neil deMause exposed that song-and-dance many years ago in his book (and active website of the same name) Field of Schemes. But fungible numbers and other facts don’t make as big a roar as all that hot air.

The other favorite load of exhaust is that Penske’s money is crucial to Belle Isle’s survival.

Really? He claims to have contributed $13 million to the island, a figure dwarfed by the amount the DNR has spent since the state takeover. I’ll let longtime park user Carol Rhoades summarize what that $13 million bought: "10 acres of cement for a permanent ‘paddock’ over a grassy lawn with many trees taken down which were a memorial to Save Our Sons and Daughters, permanent bridge anchors for pedestrian bridges only for race attendees, widened roads for the race track paid for by MDOT (us) – $4 million dollars’ worth – a working fountain (but all the 100-year old-Pewabic tiles were destroyed in the process), drainage for the track circuit so the ladies in their heels don't sink in the grass.”

If all those Penske “improvements” don’t win you over, the PR machine will invoke, in Bud Denker’s words, the “hard to estimate” things of great value to Detroit that accrue from the national telecast of the race, which surely must bring tourists to visit here – though no such watcher of auto racing inspired to visit Detroit by the sight of a city using its most valuable parkland as a car track has ever actually been identified.

Numbers from nowhere

All these numbers, both the fancy and the fantasized, came back like zombies during this month’s media blitz. The race set-up itself had a bigger footprint, more gigantic ads, and more extensive occupation this year than ever on the island – but the Penske team made sure to distract attention. At a media gala at the Detroit Historical Museum, they trotted out the story that Penske was contributing $5 million to revitalize the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood, and the media lapped it up.

No matter that the money was his share of a seven-company $35-million pledge to Duggan’s Neighborhood Strategic Fund announced last December – surely no one’s memory lasts six months? And who groused that 60 percent of Penske’s share was earmarked to renovate and expand the tiny Lenox Center, something that neighborhood advocates didn’t want? They’d pushed for a real rec center to replace the one that the city closed. If it sounds like the PR folks were desperate for a well-timed feel-good story, who can blame them for recycling one that didn’t get a lot of hurrahs the first time around?

Throughout this blaring build-up, the road to Sunset Point was closed a week earlier than last year, even though the Grand Prix website still claims it – and a lot of other inaccessible parts of Belle Isle – are open. But why bother to report such things? The News has been busy, for the third year in a row, presenting articles – I mean, “content” –  written by the Grand Prix but packaged not like the ads they are, but as something resembling the thing a dwindling number of us remember as journalism.

I must be one of those preservationists.


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