“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Belle Isle…”
February 08, 2013
DETROIT — To anyone not steeped in the long, dreary and self-destructive history of racial identity politics in Detroit, it is hard to see the 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. In the final analysis, however, the contemptuous decision to turn its back on a deal that would have been nothing but a plus for the city and the citizens may well have a positive outcome: Within weeks, the Council may well lose virtually all of its power to a state-appointed Emergency Manager.
For those who wanted to avoid completely disenfranchising 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 therefore prevent a complete state takeover since an unwieldy “consent agreement” went into effect last spring. Detroit’s financial condition is such that, “desperate” is probably too mild a term. 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 still running a current budget deficit of at least $350 million. In addition, the city has long-term unfunded liabilities of $12 billion or more. There isn’t money to repair the street-lighting system, let alone keep up the parks, even the jewel of the system: Belle Isle.
Belle Isle is the largest city island park in the nation — nearly a thousand acres — and was for a long time one of the most beautiful. It was a popular recreation spot before the Civil War, and was partially planned by the great park designer Frederick Law Olmstead. Today, however, the city no longer has enough money to do even the park’s minimum necessary maintenance. Buildings are slowly crumbling; fountains and rest rooms are in need of repair. Last year, Governor Rick Snyder proposed a solution: Lease Belle Isle to the state, which would pour millions into fixing it up and then run it as a state park. Belle Isle would be restored, and the cash-poor city would be saved $6.2 million in operating costs.
Cars entering Belle Isle would have to display the $11 state park sticker, but pedestrians, bicycles and buses could enter free. Mayor Dave Bing thought this was a great deal. Yet Detroit’s City Council balked. Last month the state tried again, coming back with an even sweeter deal: The state would lease Belle Isle for a decade at a time, meaning the city would have a chance every ten years to end the deal. Additionally, the state agreed to contract negotiations protecting the family reunions that are a big part of life at the park, add an advisory committee, and to try and hire Detroiters to work there.
The Detroit News took a poll that 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 certain faction of the estimated 685,000 remaining Detroit residents really do think that suburban and outstate whites want to steal their city from them, take their assets away or operate them themselves. In the end, the Council refused to even vote on the Belle Isle offer. That same day, the Governor took the deal off the table.
A disappointed Bing told reporters, “When we thumb our nose at $6 million, I think its 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, now 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 deal meant 51 other city parks will now be closed. Even with that, he said conditions at Belle Isle are likely to get worse. Some suggested that maybe the city could collect park fees itself and fix up the island. But economists familiar with Detroit’s problems said, “No way.” That would require a bond issue, something impossible in a city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
The City Council’s rejection of a deal that was a complete win-win for Detroit is likely to have unintended consequences. The betting was that the governor wanted to wait on an Emergency Manager for Detroit until April, when a new law will give such officials broad new powers takes effect. But with the city so close to being out of cash, the irrational actions of the Council may mean they will lose much of their power much earlier. That seems inevitable, and suddenly more broadly acceptable. The Rev. Harry Cook is a retired Episcopal priest who has been a big defender of Detroit and, ‘til now, an opponent of a state-appointed Emergency Manager. But now, he has changed his mind.
“The Belle Isle fiasco proves that Detroit City Council is out of touch with reality. 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 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 any massive federal aid. Especially as long as city leaders are so willing and able to sabotage any attempt to improve people’s lives.