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Re: Proposed Lease of Belle Isle to the State of Michigan

By Kenneth V. Cockrel, Jr.
Detroit City Councilmember

On Jan. 29, Detroit City Council voted on whether to lease Belle Isle to the state of Michigan in exchange for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources assuming the maintenance costs associated with the island.

After much discussion, the ultimate decision of Council was to not act on this matter at this time. I was among the six Councilmembers who voted not to approve the lease at this time.

There are two primary reasons for my negative vote in this regard and I believe it’s important to detail them for the record.

First, the Belle Isle issue has become a distraction that has shifted attention away from the bigger, more important problem of the city’s finances. In fact, the only reason why the Belle Isle lease was seen as a viable solution to the problem of maintenance and upkeep for the island is because the city’s financial problems have made meeting these $6 million annual costs difficult.

But if one accepts that Detroit’s financial problems are making the care of Belle Isle a problem, then one should also accept that Detroit restructuring Detroit’s finances are the greater problem that should be the sole focus of Detroit’s elected officials. If we fix those finances we will likely find that Belle Isle maintenance and upkeep will cease to be a problem.

There are many Detroiters that repeatedly attended Council meetings and labeled the Belle Isle lease proposal as a racially motivated attempt to “take over” one of Detroit’s crown jewels. I don’t share this belief and this didn’t motivate my decision making.

Many will recall that several years ago, I was one of the few Council members who voted initially in support of the agreement to allow the Detroit Zoological Society to manage the Detroit Zoo. In 2009 and while serving as Detroit’s Interim Mayor, I championed the creation of a regional authority to begin a renovation and expansion of Detroit’s Cobo Hall. I recognize that we do indeed face some problems that require partnerships or regional solutions.

But this brings me to my second point: at some point Detroit must demonstrate that there are some problems it can fix on its own. I frankly believe the Belle Isle issue is one of those problems. Maintenance and upkeep costs associated with the island are budgeted at $6 million — not $60 million. Given that Detroit’s general fund budget is over $1 billion it is hard for me to believe that creative restructuring and realignment of this budget can’t produce $6 million for Detroit to cover these costs on its own. If we as leaders cannot figure out a way to cover these costs, then shame on us.

As leaders, we were elected and are paid to handle both the easy tasks and the tough ones.

We cannot simply throw up our hands and say “we’re broke” every time we’re confronted with a tight budget. Nor can we simply look for someone else to take on every difficult challenge as opposed to rising to meet that challenge ourselves.

The question at hand is not whether the lease was a viable option but rather whether or not it was the only or best option. If the State of Michigan truly wants to help Detroit, I believe assistance is best focused on helping Detroit through the more formidable but more important task of reforming Detroit City government and fixing our larger budget problems.

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