Against long odds, activists continue their fight for an alternative plan
Published: March 6, 2013
Sitting in the bright and airy living room of their Detroit home, Frank and Karen Hammer recount the battles involving the Michigan State Fairgrounds they’ve engaged in over the years.
Both are retired now. He worked for General Motors; she held a number of jobs including teaching school and working for a nonprofit social service agency.
Their home is located in the Greenacres neighborhood. Just west of the fairgrounds, the area, like the rest of the city, has been belted by the foreclosure crisis. But the quality of these homes, many of them stately brick Tudors built during the affluent days of the roaring ’20s, has held up over the decades. And a strong neighborhood association, which Frank heads, has helped keep pervasive blight at bay.
The Hammers have lived here for 25 years, and for much of that time events at the nearby fairgrounds, located on the south side of Eight Mile Road just east of Woodward Avenue, have demanded their attention.
Back in the 1990s, after then-Gov. John Engler insisted that the annual state fair be self-supporting, there was a proposal to put a horse racetrack at the site that department store magnate Joseph L. Hudson donated to the people of Michigan in 1904.
A group using the name I.C.A.R.E. (for Inter-county Citizens Achieving Regional Excellence) sprang up in 1996 to fight that plan, which was developed without input from those who would be most affected by it — residents in the surrounding neighborhoods, who were concerned about the noise and traffic the project would bring. Because of their opposition, the proposal was withdrawn.
Four years later, in April 2000, a new idea for developing the fairgrounds was offered. This time the plan was to build hotels, an outdoor concert amphitheater and a racetrack for cars.
I.C.A.R.E. ended up going to court to stop that project, with people from Detroit, Ferndale, Hazel Park and other communities joining together in an effort to fight what they considered to be an inappropriate project.
Again, they emerged victorious.
The string of these and other triumphs ended in 2009, when then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced that Michigan could no longer afford to support a tradition that had begun 160 years earlier, when the first state fair was held.
A petition was circulated beseeching Granholm to keep the fair going, and more than 50,000 signatures were collected — but to no avail. There is an epitaph of sorts on the I.C.A.R.E. website:
“The Michigan State Fair was closed by former Governor Jennifer Granholm with the promise that it would cut government costs and be used for something that would produce jobs and tax revenue. Three years later, the fairground is still costing the state money and is another large empty and deteriorated area of Detroit. It’s a sad memorial to venality and incompetence of Michigan’s government.”
Which brings us up to the present, and the reason Frank and Karen Hammer are sitting in their living room, explaining the history of the fairgrounds and the struggles that have surrounded it for nearly two decades.
The fight that is under way now amounts to a winner-take-all match. If current plans to transfer the 157-acre parcel to a private developer are completed, there will be no turning back. There will be a movie theater, and big-box stores and assisted living housing for senior citizens. There will be new housing, and some of the historic structures will be saved. Others will be demolished.
And, according to opponents like the Hammers and others, an incredible opportunity to take advantage of a uniquely situated piece of publicly owned land will be forever lost.
That sentiment was expressed late in 2011, when Karen Hammer and two other I.C.A.R.E. activists, Byna Camden and Bob Lang, sent a letter to Gov. Rick Snyder imploring him to reconsider the decision to sell the fairgrounds.
They want the state fair to return to its longtime home. More than that, though, they would like to see what they consider to be the full potential of the property realized, not by putting it in the hands of commercial interests — although they acknowledge the private sector can play a critical role in all this — but rather by having the fairgrounds used as a tool to help revitalize Detroit and the rest of the region.
“We are missing a rare opportunity to utilize this strategically developed, unique acreage,” they declared in that letter to Snyder.
So far, Gov. Snyder hasn’t listened. Last month, the Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority unanimously decided to begin negotiations with Magic Plus LLC, a partnership that includes former Michigan State and NBA basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Lansing developer Joel Ferguson, and Marvin Beatty, a former deputy commissioner for the Detroit Fire Department and current vice president of the Greektown Casino.
What the Hammers, Bob Lang and others opposed to the current plan want the public to know is that, contrary to the impression generated by coverage in the mainstream media, this isn’t yet a done deal.
The Land Bank, they contend, has the ability to put its foot on the brakes anytime it wants — at least until ownership of the property is turned over to some other entity. Which means that the opportunity remains to go back and open the process back up, allowing for the type of broad input that wasn’t included when the Land Bank issued its original request for proposals, or RFP.
Critics contend that the process has been flawed from the start, with a narrow vision that suffered from a lack of public input and a compressed time frame for potential developers to submit bids.
The end result was a single development proposal that met the state’s requirements.
“They claim that they cast a wide net,” Karen Hammer says. “If that’s true, why did they catch only one fish?”
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