Detroit City Councilman James Tate’s $2 or $3 Belle Isle vehicle entry fee suggestion is a reasonable attempt to restore the once-grand treasure on the Detroit River to its former beauty. Critics who don’t see it as an idea whose time has come must be blind to the advancing stages of disrepair and neglect taking place on the island.
There is nothing repulsive about Councilman Tate’s desire to help make the island self-sustaining through a per vehicle toll that would raise as much as $3 million a year. Allowing private companies to operate carnival rides and food concessions could be great fun and profitable. Both initiatives would put the city in a better position to implement preventative measures rather than crisis maintenance.
Neither is a novel notion. Since the 1990s city officials have flirted with the fee issue on at least three occasions. Former Mayor Coleman Young once considered putting a casino on the isle. But public and council opposition shut off debate and doomed the plans to the trash heap of potentially significant but untried ideas.
Community activists are again fanning the flames of dissent on the basis that parks should be “free and open to the public.” Councilwoman JoAnn Watson is among those who can’t imagine asking residents to “pay” to use this tarnished gem. She’s also among the group of city elected officials who are obsessed with what’s good for the “poor” instead of what’s good for Belle Isle. Their arguments, however, defy logic.
Lost in the debate is the fact that more than 30 percent of driving age adults in Detroit don’t have vehicles. Most of the “poor” come to the island in the car of a friend or relative. And since the $3 fee would be a vehicle, not a per person fee, a friend with a van could transport a lot of poor people to the island for a mere pittance.
In a broader sense, the $800,000 currently budgeted for the island is less than half of what it was 15 years ago, and woefully insufficient to take care of all the unsightliness. Councilman Tate likely — and wisely — concluded that while parks are a legitimate quality of life concern, they must by necessity take a back seat to basic public services such public safety in a tight budget cycle. But there is another viable option.
Thousands of taxpaying Detroiters don’t see Belle Isle as a hospitable place for their families. They travel to and enjoy amenities and activities in suburban parks across the region. At Huron Clinton Metroparks, for example, they willingly pay a $2 or $3 dollars entrance fee in addition to a dedicated millage. If merging Belle Isle into this authority could provide for better management and maintenance, it would also provide a more enjoyable venue for the poor.
If critics were focused on the big picture, they would see the consequences of years of disorder and inaction on the island treasure. They would see piles of debris and unkempt and deplorable restrooms in deteriorating buildings during the summer season. In plain view are cruising, sometimes intimidating teens with nothing to do but create bumper-to-bumper traffic jams and announce their presence through deafening boom boxes. Faultfinders must know that doing nothing is not an improvement strategy.
For these and other reasons, Councilman Tate’s Belle Isle proposal or merger should be on a fast track to adoption. Not the least of which is that they could give visitors from every income level a chance to participate in the rebirth of the city’s most unique and perhaps last remaining jewel.
Because some of his colleagues can’t see the wisdom in this bright idea reveals something askew about their long-term vision and ability to make decisions in the public interest. This lack of insight cannot be good for the restoration of Belle Isle or for the overall well-being of the city and its poor.