Racing fans are falling over themselves this week to scoop up tickets for the Detroit Grand Prix, making its return to Belle Isle. The IndyCar event runs through Sunday, but it may not be the last time visitors reach for their wallets in order to set foot on Detroit's most famous island and largest park.
The 982-acre island, which is sometimes called "Detroit's Jewel," sits on the Detroit River and is currently managed by the Detroit Department of Recreation. It's a popular destination for city residents to go hiking, biking, swimming and barbequing. Belle Isle also features a beach, a lighthouse and a conservatory designed by famed architect Albert Kahn.
But in response to its own budget crisis, the city is now trying to turn the island into a true monetary asset. On Thursday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder told Crain's Detroit Business the state is currently working out plans to integrate Belle Isle into the state park system.
Admittance to the park is currently free to the public, as with all city parks, but Detroit's recent consent agreement with the state includes a plan to lease the island to Michigan's Department of Natural Resources, while allowing the city to maintain ownership. The plan would save the city money on park maintenance as it looks to overhaul its finances.
Snyder told Crain's if Belle Isle does become a state park, visitors will likely have to pay a fee, but Detroit residents would probably get free admittance for several years. He also said plans for the park could include upgrades to lighting, transportation and police presence, adding the state is open to development proposals.
DNR director Rodney Stokes raised a similar point in an April interview with the Detroit Free Press, noting Belle Isle would be a great location for corporate outings.
"I don't think the state can do it by ourselves," he said. "We're hoping that the corporate community will be willing to adopt some of those facilities to restore those as well."
Mayor Dave Bing is looking for similar corporate backing for a new conservancy to replace the city's Recreation Department, which currently runs community centers and parks.
The privatization of Belle Isle is a hot-button issue in Detroit, but the idea has long had backers. An article from as long ago as 2000 by Michael D. LaFaive that appears on the website of the conservative Mackinac Center For Public Policy proposed selling the island outright to private investors.