Whither the Michigan State Fair? Depends on developer


DETROIT — In 1849, when Zachary Taylor was president and Michigan had been a state for barely a dozen years, farmers and merchants held the first state fair in Detroit.

The fair moved around until 1905, when Joseph Hudson, founder of Michigan’s iconic department store chain, bought land on Woodward Avenue, near the city’s northern border.

He then sold it to the state agricultural society for a dollar, so that the Michigan State Fair would have a permanent home. And for more than a century, it did.

In some summers, more than a million people flocked to the fair. Even after attendance gradually fell off, the fair still attracted hundreds of thousands of people a year.

The fair was the only opportunity many urban kids had to see farm animals — some of which they could watch being born — and learn where the food they ate came from.

But four years ago, then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm suddenly killed the fair by removing it from the state budget. She vetoed an attempt by lawmakers to save the fair.

Now, there is an intense, if largely under-the-radar, debate over what to do with the fairgrounds.

A group of big-name developers seems to have the inside track. But a plucky collection of local activists has its own plans — and insists that there should still be room for a fair.

“We haven’t made a formal decision, but there is only one proposal that has met the minimum standards [for bids],” Kim Homan said. Ms. Homan, an attorney, is executive director of the Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority. That agency is charged with figuring out the future of the 157-acre fairgrounds area.

There were rumors that a big developer was in the wings when Ms. Granholm killed the fair in 2009. But nothing happened in the last year of her term, nor in the first year of Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration.

The fair buildings began to deteriorate. The iconic giant stove, carved out of oak in 1893, was struck by lightning and burned in 2011.

Last April, the Legislature voted to transfer the fairgrounds to the land bank authority. The authority promptly put out a request for proposals. Three were received, though two fell quickly by the wayside.

The only remaining proposal is from Magic Plus LLC, a group for whom the public face is, as its name suggests, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the former professional basketball star who played at Michigan State University.

He isn’t the only investor. The major players seem to be Joel Ferguson, a longtime Lansing developer and Michigan State trustee, and Marvin Beatty, a former Detroit fire official who is a vice president of Greektown Casino. They say that if their bid is accepted, they plan to build retail and housing developments in stages on the site.

They say they plan to invest $120 million. But that doesn’t impress members of a largely neighborhood-based group called the State Fair Development Coalition.

Jim Casha is a 57-year-old civil engineer and farmer who lives both in Detroit and near Hamilton, Ontario. His business card proudly proclaims that he is “The Chicken Man.” He pleaded with the land bank authority at its last public meeting on the fairgrounds Jan. 17.

“Because the Magic Plus proposal falls so far short of the people’s expectations,” Mr. Casha argued, “and because of the recent passage of the regional transit authority legislation, this proposal should be rejected and the process started over.”

He was referring to a new authority designed to operate a network of high-speed buses throughout the Detroit area’s three major metropolitan counties. The plan has been signed into law, but can’t take effect until the counties each approve millages to pay for it.

Mr. Casha and his allies have come up with a stunning conception of what the fairgrounds could look like. They call it META Expo, for Michigan Energy, Technology, Agriculture.

They have put together a beautifully rendered set of architectural drawings of their vision for the fairgrounds. They’d leave space for an annual state fair. They’d also have green space and residential developments, plus a multi-modal transportation hub.

They did not, however, submit a bid themselves, partly because that would have taken a minimum of $25 million. The META group doesn’t have any money. In any event, bids are closed, and the Magic Plus bid is the only one still on the table.

However, Ms. Homan says that doesn’t mean the state couldn‘t require any bidder to make changes in its proposal.

Some officials reportedly have voiced concerns that the Magic Plus plan lacks green space and a transportation hub. After the last meeting, Mr. Ferguson felt the need to announce: “We are not building a strip mall.” He said his group would be open to “tweaking” what it is willing to do.

The land bank authority’s next meeting is March 16. Ms. Homan confirmed that it is possible — but by no means certain — the authority could accept the Magic Plus bid then.

Keeping up the vacant fairgrounds is costing the state about $1 million a year, she said. Not yet negotiated is what a successful bidder would have to pay the state for the fairgrounds.

Whatever happens, someone is likely to be unhappy. Kenneth Weikal, a landscape architect with the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition, wrote to Governor Snyder to say he feared the Magic Plus plan “radically under-utilizes this historic public property.”

“We need a development that attracts talent and entrepreneurship to live and work in our communities,” he argued.

Nobody would dispute that.

But sadly, it seems unlikely that there will ever again be a fair in Detroit, where farm kids can show off what they’ve raised to other kids who have never been near a farm.

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.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com