Against long odds, activists continue their fight for an alternative plan
Published: March 6, 2013
At the February meeting that featured the announcement that the Magic Plus group had been selected as the designated developer for the fairgrounds property, Land Bank officials described the process that began last year when the Legislature passed two bills “allowing the transfer of the former Michigan State Fairgrounds to the state of Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority to return the land to productive use.”
Gov. Snyder signed the bills into law in early April, and the property was quickly turned over to the Land Bank.
Before the plan even got out of the Legislature, there was concern among some that a back-room deal was already in the works.
While transfer of the fairgrounds property was still being debated, Rep. Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills) registered his objection to the plan. He didn’t necessarily oppose the idea of the state unloading the property, but he did have a problem with the way the governor wanted to do it.
“Mr. Speaker and members of the House: If the desire is to sell the land, then put it up for sale. I oppose sending the land to the MEDC via Land Bank in order to likely cut deals with select well-connected people. Picking winners and losers is wrong.”
It’s not clear if McMillin had anyone in particular in mind — he didn’t respond to several interview requests made by MT — but Frank Hammer says plans for development of the property were under way well before the legislation McMillin opposed was ever even introduced.
“Joel Ferguson came and met with a group of about 10 of us in the fall of 2011,” Hammer recalls. Hammer was invited because of his position as an officer of the Greenacres Woodward Civic Association.
The developer, Hammer says, sketched out his plans for the fairground project on a napkin.
Community activist Lee Gaddies was at that meeting as well. He confirms what Hammer recalls, and expands upon it.
“This was a done deal before it ever went to Lansing,” Gaddies says.
The meeting, he says, was called by then-state Rep. Jimmy Womack, who represented the area.
“We were told, ‘Here’s the plan, you guys better get on board because the governor’s behind this,” Gaddies says. Like Hammer, Gaddies says that Ferguson “literally drew what he had in mind on a napkin.”
Ferguson, in a phone interview with MT, confirms he attended the meeting Gaddies and Hammer describe, and says he did draw some plans on a napkin, but adds that napkin’s now in the trash because the current plan reflects changes that have been made as result of community input. And more changes are possible.
What he adamantly denies is that somehow he worked behind the scenes to ensure that Magic Plus would be selected as the project’s developer.
He contends the only thing the governor wanted was a first-rate development that put the property back into productive use instead of being mothballed, wasting taxpayer money as it sat idle.
“I’m always eager to meet with those people,” Ferguson says. “I’m not locked into what we’ve proposed. I’m willing to listen to anyone.”
He’s clearly not happy, though, to be listening to a reporter “carry their water” by confronting him with their criticisms.
“They don’t need to come swinging at me though a newspaper,” he says.
The state claims that it wanted vital public input on the project, and the governor appointed five Detroiters — including Frank Hammer — to be on the newly created Fairgrounds Advisory Committee. But the RFP was issued before that committee could even meet, let alone provide any meaningful contributions regarding the type of development the state was seeking. Critics also point out this gave potential developers only 60 days to respond.
Even in an economy struggling to recover from the recession that began when the housing-market bubble burst late in 2007, it would seem that the fairgrounds would be a ripe plum any number of developers would be eager to pluck. It is, after all, the single largest parcel along the Woodward corridor, which stretches from the Detroit River to Pontiac in Oakland County.
As landscape architect Ken Weikal points out, the “footprint” of the fairgrounds is large enough to contain the entire downtown area of either Ferndale or Royal Oak.
The word that keeps coming up again and again when talking with people eager to promote an expansive vision for development of the fairgrounds is “opportunity.” They see the site as having unlimited potential.
But when the Land Bank went looking for developers to buy the land, they found virtually no interest in the property. There were just three responses, only one of which ultimately met the financial criteria required by the state.
“Of the bids submitted in response to the RFP, only the Magic Plus, LLC proposal met the RFP’s minimum financial and design requirements,” the Land Bank announced in a Feb. 8 press release. “All proposals were assessed according to the RFP’s criteria, and with neither the review team nor the MLB [Michigan Land Bank] board knowing the identity of the developers to ensure anonymity of project bidders and process fairness.”
What’s being promised is this, according to the authority: “… an approximately $120 million, 500,000-square-foot mixed-used development that includes retail, residential, green space and entertainment uses. In addition, the plan proposes to renovate and utilize some of the existing buildings.”
There will be a cineplex and restaurants, upscale townhouses, a senior living complex and so-called “big-box” retail such as a Home Depot. Also promised are smaller retail outlets, a small train depot and parking — lots and lots of parking.
What there won’t be, if the developers have their way, is any upfront payment for all this property. In its proposal, the Magic Plus group contends that the “property has little or no value until developed.”
To bolster that point, the group points out that Meijer, which is anchoring a shopping center being built at an adjacent site on the corner of Eight Mile and Woodward on land previously owned by the state, needed to be enticed to locate there with the promise of 20 free acres and other incentives.
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