Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Stubborn Detroit leaders dim Belle Isle’s brilliance

DETROIT — To anyone who is not steeped in the long, dreary, and self-destructive history of racial identity politics in Detroit, it is hard to see City Council’s move last week to reject the state’s offer to fix up Belle Isle and run it as a state park as anything other than sheer insanity.

Yet council members’ decision to turn their back contemptuously on a deal that would have been a plus for the city and its residents may have a positive outcome. Within weeks, council could lose virtually all its power to an appointed emergency manager.

For those who wanted to avoid disfranchising the city’s elected leadership, the Belle Isle disaster has to be a disappointment. The city has been struggling — and failing — to balance its budget and prevent a state takeover since an unwieldy “consent agreement“ went into effect last spring.

“Desperate” probably is too mild a term to describe Detroit’s financial condition. The city cannot put enough police officers on the street to respond to most crimes other than murder.

Despite layoffs and pay cuts, the city is running a budget deficit of at least $350 million. Detroit has long-term unfunded liabilities of $12 billion or more.

There isn’t money to repair the street-lighting system, let alone keep up city parks, even the jewel of the system: Belle Isle.

At nearly 1,000 acres, Belle Isle is the largest city island park in the nation. Partially planned by the great park designer Frederick Law Olmstead, it was long one of the most beautiful urban parks. It was a popular recreation spot before the Civil War.

Today, the city no longer has enough money to keep up with even the park’s minimum necessary maintenance. Buildings are crumbling; fountains and restrooms need repair.

Last year, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder proposed a solution: Lease Belle Isle to the state, which would pour millions of dollars into fixing it up and then run it as a state park. Belle Isle would be restored, and cash-poor Detroit would be saved $6.2 million a year in operating costs.

Cars entering Belle Isle would have to display an $11 state park sticker, but pedestrians, bicyclists, and buses could enter free. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing thought this was a great deal.

Yet City Council balked. Last month, the state offered a sweeter deal: The state would lease Belle Isle for a decade at a time, so the city would have a chance every 10 years to end the deal.

The state also agreed to protect the family reunions that are a big part of life at the park, add an advisory committee, and try to hire Detroiters to work there.

A Detroit News poll showed residents in favor of the deal by a wide margin. But screaming fanatics denounced it. Some claimed the state was trying to steal one of the city’s jewels.

That, to veteran Detroit-watchers, is a familiar theme. A faction of the estimated 685,000 remaining Detroit residents thinks that suburban and outstate whites want to steal their city from them, take their assets away, or control them.

In the end, council refused even to vote on the Belle Isle offer. Governor Snyder took the deal off the table.

A disappointed Mayor Bing told reporters: “When we thumb our nose at $6 million, I think it’s nuts. This plan would have provided state funding for the operation, renovation, and maintenance of the island, while we work to stabilize the city’s finances.”

Instead, the city has nothing. “Tell me what kind of sense that makes,” the mayor said. Two days later, he announced that the collapse of the Belle Isle deal means 51 other city parks will close.

The Rev. Harry Cook is a retired Episcopal priest who has been a big defender of Detroit and, until now, an opponent of a state-appointed emergency manager. But he has changed his mind.

“The Belle Isle fiasco proves that Detroit City Council is out of touch with reality,” he said. “Their inaction was not an exercise of democracy, but anarchy.

“If and when Governor Snyder does appoint an emergency manager, I hope that person will understand that Detroit is a 139-square-mile emergency with sirens wailing, people dying, and a city at war with himself,” said Mr. Cook, who was born in the city in 1939.

Detroit, he believes, “needs a Marshall Plan, not simply an emergency manager.”

But it’s hard to see any realistic chance of massive federal aid to Detroit. Especially not as long as city leaders are willing and able to sabotage any attempt to improve Detroiters’ lives.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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