Belle Isle surged back into the spotlight in recent weeks after a Metro Detroit developer made an outlandish proposal: Sell the city park to private investors for $1 billion and secede the island from the U.S. to form a corporate utopia where taxes are near nil.
Many Detroiter’s guttural reaction to the billion dollar offer, presented by Bingham Farms developer Rodney Lockwood in the form of a futuristic fiction novel, was a granite hard “no”. Not surprising, since just months ago city council rejected a much tamer idea presented by Gov. Rick Snyder: lease Belle Isle to the state at no cost for 30 years while Detroit works to beef up its bare-bones finances.
While Lockwood’s far-fetched idea is highly unlikely to come to fruition, it makes the state’s offer seem like a very modest proposal. It also offers a peek at what could become of the island if the city plunges into bankruptcy before securing a deal with the state to maintain the island.
Despite the scathing criticism of Lockwood’s plan, $1 billion is nothing to yawn at. It’s a considerable sum for a city with an annual operating budget of $3.1 billion. It’s also the only reason the bizarre proposal is getting any airtime at all. Money is on the table. A lot of it. And when money talks, people—even opponents—listen.
That’s exactly what happened at the Detroit Athletic Club yesterday as Lockwood shared his vision for Belle Isle with a wide range of Michigan business leaders and elected officials. But not everyone, even staunch free market supporters, liked everything they heard.
The Detroit Free Press reports:
“Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, told developer Rodney Lockwood and his partners that they hadn't done enough to explain how their idea for a wealthy, virtually tax-free enclave on Belle Isle would benefit Detroit itself. ‘Having rich neighbors doesn't make you rich,’ he said, pointing to the example of upscale Grosse Pointe next to Detroit, one of the poorest cities in the nation.”
Detroit officials also doubted the plan would benefit Detroit.
George Jackson, head of the Detroit Economic Growth Council (DEGC) said that he didn’t see how the plan would boost Detroit’s development. Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown flatly stated, “It will not work.”
Such a statement raises a searingly important question: What will work?
The answer could come as early as next week.
The Detroit News spoke with city council members who confirmed the lease is likely to pass council soon: Brown told The News:
"We're still working on issues about security, but we can get it done. The votes on City Council are there — they have actually been there for a while." City Councilman James Tate said: "The majority of the issues that my colleagues and the community had are addressed in the new proposed lease…[but] it's important to me that we have a public hearing on the matter to weigh in on the issue."
Councilman James Tate said the council votes are secured:
"The majority of the issues that my colleagues and the community had are addressed in the new proposed lease," Tate said. But "it's important to me that we have a public hearing on the matter to weigh in on the issue."
The revamped lease proposal cuts the lease time down from 30 to ten years and the city could opt out after each ten-year interval. The city would retain ownership of the park while reaping the benefits of state funds to operate the 895 acre island in the Detroit river.
As for the fantastical corporate proposal for the island, it may never get far off the ground. But it does paint a picture of what could happen if naysayers keep disputing state intervention with 895-acre park without offering any alternatives.
"I have no problem selling Belle Isle," Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s Baruah told the Detroit News regarding Lockwood’s plan, "But frankly, I don't think you are making a great case for people outside the island."