It’s a proposal that has ruffled the feathers of almost everyone who has read about it: Sell Belle Isle to a group of private developers so they can secede the island from the U.S. and make it an elite tax haven for the rich? How bizarre.
But that’s not the whole story. One developer who is part of the group offering to shell out $1 billion to buy Detroit’s 985-acre island park is Larry Mongo, a lifelong Detroit businessman who says media coverage of the plan has been lacking.
Mongo says reports that he and his colleagues plan to buy Belle Isle and secede it from the United States are untrue. The offer of turning Belle Isle into an exclusive commonwealth is more of a negotiating tactic than anything else, Mongo suggests.
“We don’t want to secede,” Mongo told michronicle.com “We just want certain tax autonomy. And all that can be negotiated. You know, you put everything on the table that you want and you see what happens.”
He said the plan is still in the introductory phase and the futuristic fiction book his collogue Rod Lockwood wrote about the idea is a sort of attention-getter forerunning a more formal proposal. Lockwood, who spearheaded the idea, presented it before a group of business leaders and elected officials last week to a lukewarm reaction.
But supporters of the plan say every new idea is going to get some kickback at first.
“We are not spoiled children. We are mature enough to know that not everything is going to be agreed on,” Mongo said. “But if we can compromise to the point where we can move forward, we will.”
Mongo, who worked with Lockwood and others to shape the plan over the past four years says his role is to answer a question many have been asking since its debut: What’s in it for Detroiters? The answer, he says, is jobs, jobs, jobs.
“Detroit’s problems are nothing that jobs can’t solve for the most part,” he said. “ But it has to be a special type of employment.”
Mongo said he is putting together a organization strategy aimed at small churches in the city. He plans to mobilize Detroit churchgoers and ministers who “never had a microphone put in their face.”
The idea is to gather residents with felony records looking for work with odds stacked against them and pitch the Belle Isle development plan by offering them a job. Mongo says most job postings exclude convicted felons, a portion of the population that is high in Detroit. Unemployment among felons leads to recidivism and more crime in the city Mongo says.
“I said, ‘Rod, we have thousands of kids who will never take advantage of the American dream simply because of a thing called a felony record,” Mongo said. “Most of them work two steps above slavery in the underground economy meaning they get paid under the table and employers know they are trapped under the table.”
Mongo’s agenda this year is to go to small storefront churches and organize Detroit’s returning citizens to get them to apply for constriction jobs to build projects proposed in their Belle Isle development plan for a minimum of $12.50/hour.
The end goal is a massive job fair on Belle Isle where job seekers can apply in person, a move that Mongo expects to draw out thousands of “Detroit’s poor” in support of the Belle Isle sale proposal Mongo says. There will be no Internet application for these proposed job posts, just newspaper and radio adds promoting the fair.
“That way the City of Detroit, the State of Michigan, and all the naysayers who say nobody wants to do this would see the number of people that come in to apply for jobs.” Mongo said. “A lot of people can sit at a typewriter and say what the people don’t want.”
Mongo said the job fair could happen as early as May. The plan won’t be extinguished by a lease agreement between the City and the State.
Mongo says the idea stems from an altruistic core: to help people who are struggling to live the American dream.
“Rodney Lockwood is a very successful man who made two mistakes,” Mongo said. “He got involved in Detroit, saw a lot of hurt, and he cared.”
Mongo scoffed at the class warfare, especially in Detroit, that often pits the poor against the rich. He says that unless the rich invest in Detroit, the city will continue to spiral downward into debt and insolvency.
“You think downtown would have the energy it has it wasn’t for Dan Gilbert?” Mongo asks. “He’s going to be losing money for years. So it has to be more than money. It has to be a social consciousness in us. If we were poor people no one would read this.”
Critics of the plan call it a corporate fantasy, a place where there are little to no taxes, people travel by helicopter to land on the top of a Four Seasons Hotel on the island and where the only cars allowed are Formula 1 racecars.
But Mongo doesn’t see what’s wrong with dreaming big. “Think about this: electricity was a fantasy. Penicillin was a fantasy. Everything that started that was great for human kind was a fantasy of someone’s,” he says.
He also disputes the criticism that the plan only creates low-wage jobs such as chauffeurs, waiters, and construction workers arguing, “you gotta start somewhere.”
Mongo touted a free market capitalist idea that it’s wealth that builds society. He compared Lockwood and his colleagues to families like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. “We’re still benefiting from the things the Rockefellers did for us.” Mongo said.
Why Belle Isle and not another tract of vacant land in a city that is known for its wide-open spaces?
There’s no other place in the city where one can snap up a mile and a half of contiguous city-owned property, something that is crucial to the development plan, Mongo said.
Despite any decisions the city council makes to lease the island to the State of Michigan, Mongo is still going to carry out his plan to organize a summer job fair to show how many people are looking for the kind of work he believes the island sale would provide.
“I will be on the radio, in the paper, knocking on minister’s doors—organizing the unheard of ministers and churches. That’s who $12.50 an hour will [appeal] to. I guarantee you it will stop thousands of people from doing ten in a Midwest penn. because they’ll have a job.”
Mongo said the building on Belle Isle would start immediately after approval of the sale, something that could happen more easily if the city goes bankrupt.
He said it’s a serious proposal that won’t be taken off the table because of pushback from critics and naysayers.
“Let’s create something called Solutionists. We don’t care if you black, white, gay or a cross dresser—let’s participate in a solution,” Mongo said, referring to Lockwood’s fiction book Belle Isle in which the political party is called the Solutionists.
But they’ll know when to throw in the towel. Mongo said he is afraid that if Detroit rejects the plan it will be passing up on a game changing opportunity. He said Lockwood is prepared to bring the plan to other parts of the state and the country where he expects it to be welcomed and to jump-start the local economy. In fact he said if he and his colleagues carry out the plan elsewhere, Detroit leaders will wish they had accepted the offer.
“Why do Detroiters like to be in second or third place?” Mongo said. “It’s the same mentality [that] chased Motown out. Trust me.”