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Future of Belle Isle in limbo

Council postpones vote; state withdraws offer

By Mike Sandula
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — The city of Detroit still owns and manages Belle Isle — for now. A few hours after Detroit City Council postponed a vote on the lease of Belle Isle Jan. 29, the state withdrew its offer. The following day the governor threatened the appointment of an emergency manger was inevitable. Council won’t take up the issue again for a few weeks, but it’s unclear what, if any, action will then be taken.

Citizens split

Many residents voiced their concerns at a two-hour public hearing on Jan. 28. Roughly 70-80 residents attended the hearing, but only 33 were admitted into Council chambers — the rest were relegated to the auditorium, to the consternation of many, to watch a live feed of the hearing on a projector. Some were allowed to briefly enter Council chambers to speak for 90 seconds, but were escorted back to the auditorium immediately after.

Residents were split on whether the city should agree to the lease.

“We’re still not consenting to any activity here,” said Sandra Hines. “How we handle this situation is to get rid of the six (Council members) who vote against us again and again.”

Another resident, who said he lives five minutes from the island and that he, his wife and his child visit the island hundreds of times a year, spoke in favor of the state takeover.

“We’re letting our pride get in the way instead of seeing this as help,” he said.

Others suggested the citizens, not Council, should have the vote.

Had the lease been approved, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) would have gained control of the park in a 30-year lease, with the option of two 30-year renewals. Every 10 years, the city or state would have been allowed to opt out of the contract. An annual $11 pass would be required of anyone driving to the island, though the pass would grant access to all state parks. Those traveling to the island by foot or by bicycle would still get in free.

Although some dispute that the lease would have saved the city $6 million dollars annually in maintenance and operation costs, Irvin Corley of the City’s Fiscal Analysis Divivision, confirmed that it would.

“We got a report from the administration and director for general services department two or three months ago,” Corley told the Michigan Citizen. “The cost (to maintain and operate Belle Isle) includes more than the $600,000 budget line item.”

Corley says the island has other costs not directly paid out of its budget.

Those costs include utilities, salaries and clean-up.

“The majority of that is unfortunately utilities,” said Corley. “Belle Isle has a lot of drainage problems and the biggest we pay is sewerage because maintenance has been a problem.”

Corley says Belle Isle hasn’t received capital dollars for the past three or four years.

Council’s rejection

The Jan. 28 hearing ended with the Neighborhood and Community Services Committee voting 2-1 to keep the matter in committee. Members Kwame Kenyatta and JoAnn Watson voted for keeping it in committee, while Committee Chair James Tate voted no.

At its formal session the following day, Council voted 5-4 to move it out of committee, but then voted 6-3 against putting it on the day’s agenda, postponing a vote on the Belle Isle lease for two weeks. Council President Charles Pugh, along with Council members Andre Spivey, Watson, Cockrel, Brenda Jones and Kenyatta voted against holding a vote at Tuesday’s session.

A few residents again spoke on Belle Isle during the Jan. 29 formal session.

Valerie Glynn, of Free Detroit/No Consent, said, “Nothing you are doing is illegal — it is immoral, it is unconscionable, but it is not illegal.”

Another resident said the city was putting business ahead of people. “We’re losing our rights and our sense of community,” she said.

Another resident, however, a former vice president of the Friends of Belle Isle, said leasing the island is “a good business decision” for the time being.

Kenyatta cited the park’s national historic designation as one reason not to give it up. He urged Council to take a bit more time to decide, saying the issue wasn’t urgent.

“Every newspaper, every newscast, says, ‘Do this, do this,’ (but) if we don’t do due diligence now, you’re going to lose $6 million. It’s already in the budget. The sky’s not going to fall. It is a 30-year lease, so there is some concerns,” Kenyatta said.

Watson again stated that the state owes the city $220 million and the City Charter forbids the city from entering into contracts with a party that owes it money.

Councilmember Ken Cockrel, Jr. said Detroit has more pressing issues. “If we fix the city’s finances, Belle Isle takes care of itself,” he said.

Soon after Council’s vote, Gov. Snyder announced the state would be withdrawing its lease offer, as the DNR wanted an agreement by the end of January.

Later, in a statement, Mayor Bing Dave said he was “extremely disappointed” with Council’s decision.

“I believe the majority of Detroiters supported this lease agreement,” Bing’s statement reads. “City Council’s actions (on Jan. 29) will force us to look at making additional cutbacks that may negatively impact the city’s other parks.”

Alternate proposals

Other proposals had been floated, but were never put up for a vote.

Two were reviewed by the Detroit Economic Development Corporation (DEGC).

According to Corley, the DEGC did not see evidence that those developers had enough financing in place to execute their plans.

Belle Isle Partners, Inc. (BIPI), for one, proposed to lease a small portion of the 1,000-acre island to build an indoor-outdoor water park/resort. According to a BIPI press statement, BIPI would “operate, renovate and manage” Belle Isle at its own expense and the city would receive annual revenue. There would be no entry fee for the island.

An aide in Kenyatta’s office told the Michigan Citizen that other viable plans were submitted but that ultimately it was the administration that rejected the plans.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office told the Michigan Citizen that there are no deals on the table.

“And that’s where we are right now,” he said.

Contact Mike Sandula at mikesandula@michigancitizen.com

 

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