Against long odds, activists continue their fight for an alternative plan
Published: March 6, 2013
Instead of paying for the property and then either building on it or selling off pieces for others to develop, the group is proposing that it pay the state “the amount equal to 1 percent of any of the net lease revenue” the group receives, or 1 percent of the net profit received from any property sales.
As noted by Land Bank officials, it has cost the state about $1 million a year to provide security and maintain the fairgrounds since the last State Fair was last held there in 2009. So there’s good reason, they say, for the governor’s sense of urgency in seeing the property transferred to private ownership.
What’s not just ironic, but downright absurd, is the fact that canceling the fair — which was supposedly done because the state couldn’t afford to keep it going — has actually cost taxpayers much more than it would have if had continued operating.
And it’s not just activists like the Hammers who make that claim.
Steve Jenkins managed the Michigan State Fair during its final two years in Detroit, and was assistant manager before that. In a telephone interview with MT, he points out that, although the state Legislature budgeted $5 million annually for the fair, that money didn’t come out of the state’s coffers but was actually generated by the fair itself. The only time taxpayer money came into play was if revenue didn’t meet the $5 million mark.
That happened in 2009, he says, when the fair fell about $300,000 short of its budget and the state had to make up the difference. The year before that, he says, the fair actually turned a small profit.
“The claim that the fair was a financial burden to the state is grossly unfair,” he says.
Even in years when there was a shortfall, such as 2009, that $300,000 in taxpayer money helped sustain an enterprise that pumped a badly needed $5 million into the local economy.
In terms of economic activity, even in years when there was some subsidy, “you’re still “getting great bang for the buck,” he explains. There’s sales taxes generated by the fair, and from sales made at other events held throughout the year. And there’s the income taxes paid to workers. And the money paid to local companies providing services.
“The area has definitely suffered a financial loss by not having the fair held in Detroit,” he says.
What makes that loss even more profound, says Jenkins, is that a strategic plan had finally been put in place that would have enabled the fairground to capitalize on its assets throughout the entire year. By renting out the various buildings and holding a variety of events, the potential was there to turn the fairgrounds into even more of a moneymaker.
“It’s frustrating,” Jenkins says. “We had a plan in place to generate revenue year-round, but we never got the opportunity to fulfill that strategic plan.”
As for the $1 million a year that’s been spent maintaining the fairgrounds in recent years, “that kind of support was never required” when the fair was still being held, says Jenkins.
Looking toward the future, Jenkins suggests that the optimum use for the fairgrounds might be some sort of partnership that incorporates aspects of the development being proposed by Magic Plus with the return of the state fair to its longtime home. He doubts the state would contribute, though, and suggests that the nonprofit sector might be persuaded to step in and cover whatever costs the taxpayers previously picked up.
With big foundations like Kresge spending tens of millions of dollars to help lift up Detroit, having the nonprofit sector kick in $300,000 doesn’t seem out of the question.
Either way, Jenkins says, “The fairground could be a hub of economic activity.”
On that point, it seems, everyone is in agreement. The dispute is over what’s the best way to achieve that
Landscape architect Ken Weikal has been working with a group calling itself the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition, a loose-knit collection of area residents, business owners and representatives from both nonprofit organizations and local units of government.
Together, they have come up with an alternative vision for the fairgrounds. It’s called META EXPO, with META being an acronym for Michigan Energy Technology Agriculture.
It’s not that they object to components of the Magic Plus proposal — in fact, they say aspects of that plan can be incorporated into what they’d like to see happen at the site.
The difference is a matter of scope and vision.
Rather than putting the whole site into the hands of a private developer, they are proposing a public-private partnership. There would still be a cineplex, for example, and housing.
But instead of a development with a centerpiece they say would look much like other shopping malls already scattered around southeast Michigan — and, in many cases, struggling to retain tenants as the economy sputters along and shopping patterns are changing (think of all the bookstores, for instance, that have gone out of business as a result of losing customers to online sales) — what they envision is a development that focuses on the future instead of the past.
Key to that is public transit. Instead of focusing primarily on the auto — as the Magic Plus proposal does, with its acres and acres of parking lots — the META plan is tied to buses and trains, bicycles and feet.
Helping to ground this vision, making it more than simply some pie-in-the-sky hope, is a development that’s occurred since the Land Bank issued its RFP: The state’s creation in November of the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority.
After 30 years of futility, a governing body that will be able to raise funds for a regional rapid transit system — most likely a rapid bus system to serve the region — and then coordinate other components such as local bus lines and commuter rail — has finally been established.
The significance of that in terms of the fairgrounds can’t be understated.
“It is,” says Karen Hammer, “a complete game-changer.”
And it’s not only people who live around the fairgrounds and are focused primarily on transit who see things that way.
Located on the border of Oakland and Wayne counties, with Macomb nearby, the fairground is ideally located to serve as the transportation hub for the entire region, transit experts say. Along with the Woodward Corridor and Eight Mile, Interstates 75 and 696 are within a few miles, and the Grand Trunk rail line runs along the eastern edge of the fairgrounds property.
Developer Ferguson says he’s all for a strong public transportation component. It only makes sense, he says. For the project to be a success, people need to be able to get there. But where public transit is located, he says, is going to be determined by what the city and state want.
“It’s up to them,” Ferguson says.
Land Bank Executive Director Kim Homan says negotiaions are under way to nail down the details of a development agreement, but the “development team” is fully aware of the RTA and the importance of transit” for the project. But the first meeting of the RTA board is still months away, and with that $1 million a year still being spent to maintain the fairground, it wouldn’t be prudent to “put a hold on the process.”
The way Homan sees it, the fun part hasn’t really begun yet, the part where the “really creative ideas” get tossed into the mix by the public, who will be invited to particpate in a design charette that will be held sometime in the coming months.
The reason for the delay, she says, is that the project’s developers are responding to criticisms that too much of the project is devoted to parking, and are in the process of “tweaking” its plan.
“They know that this isn’t going to survive unless the community supports it,” she says.
On the other hand, Homan says she doesn’t foresee a situation where the whole deal is tossed and everything goes back to square one.
Whatever happens, there appears to be broad recognition that transit has to be a key component of the development.
Megan Owens, director of the Detroit-based nonprofit group Transportation Riders United says that, while the organization hasn’t taken a “formal” position on the fairground issue, the site’s value in terms of transit is obvious.
“It has incredible potential,” she says.
And it’s not just in terms of facilitating the use of public transit, helping people get around without cars, moving seamlessly from Ann Arbor and Metro Airport all along the Woodard Corridor to Pontiac — although that in itself is of tremendous importance to the region’s economic well-being.
Theirs is also the type of development that has sprung up all around the country in areas where mass transit systems have been well established. It is known as “transit-oriented development.”
As the costs of driving continue to climb, it seems that such development — already much in evidence in many other parts of the country — will only continue to grow in importance. Retailers will want to be located where people using pubic transit can easily reach them. Other businesses large and small will want the same thing, because doing so will help attract and keep employees who don’t want to have to rely on a car to get to and from work.
It is that new reality that helped motivate a group of Detroit businesspeople to help fund construction of a light-rail line along Woodward from downtown to midtown in Detroit: because they know it will help to grow their respective businesses in the future.
The potential benefits of having the fairgrounds serve as a hub for intermodal transportation are almost incalculable.
If the target is a transformative development that revitalizes the entire region, the fairgrounds could be the bull’s-eye.
Dan Kinkead, an architect who played a key role in formulating the much-touted Detroit Future City plan that was only recently released, also sees the possibilities inherent in the fairgrounds site.
There is the apparent: “This site can be an important hub for the Regional Transit Authority, a critical intersection where a lot of regional transit lines can come together.”
And then, he says, there is the visionary: “The fairgrounds represent the opportunity to be truly ambitious, and to be a dramatic part of our future … not just for the city of Detroit, but for the entire region.”
It is just that kind of grand-scale thinking that Jim Casha has been stumping for.
Casha, a construction engineer who “builds tunnels” when that kind of work is available, is a native Detroiter who these days divides his time between the city and a farm in Ontario.
The farm explains his business card, which prominently features a rooster, and has the name “Chicken Jim” on it. It’s a little odd, sure, but like he says, it gets the attention of people. Especially in the halls of the state Capitol, where he’s been spending a lot of volunteer time recently, trying to drum up support in the Legislature for the META EXPO plan.
He’s been working with landscape architect Weikal, the Hammers and others to try to get out the word that the Magic Plus plan isn’t a done deal — that there’s still hope a project they think is more beneficial to the overall public interest might have a chance.
His emails about the project tend to end with the line: “Pressing on, with (a lot of) unwavering faith.”
And pushing ahead does take faith, since the META folks say the officials running the Land Bank don’t quite seem to get what he and the others are trying to promote. The criticism of the META plan is that there’s no money behind it.
But that’s looking at development of the fairground through a privatization prism. The META project sees public money as being the catalyst, starting with the federal government doing in Detroit what it has done elsewhere and coming up with funding for the intermodal transportation hub that will help spur private investment.
It is not that the META folks are opposed to everything in the Magic Plus plan. They see aspects of it — the movie theater, say, as well as retail and housing — as being an important piece that the private sector can provide.
The difference is that they would like to see it be at a significantly higher density. Doing so actually produces a much greater economic effect — more than five times as much, they say.
They also see a role for universities as well as private-sector research and development, with a focus on forward-looking technologies: wind and solar energy, advanced auto, and urban agriculture.
Along with those facilities there would also be venues to showcase what is going on, displaying innovations that would draw visitors from around the state, around the country, around the world.
Instead of duplicating the tried — and they would say tired — as the Magic Plus proposal does, they are looking to create something that is innovative.
It is, Weikal says, a matter of good design. Do it right, and the development — and the money — will flow.
The one thing that would be a throwback would be what started it all in the first place: the Michigan State Fair.
They want to see the annual showcase return to the land that was given to the people of Michigan so that the state’s agriculture industry, which remains as vital as ever, and has become a critical part of the revitalization of Detroit, has an urban showcase.
Bob Lang, who is 74 and has lived within shouting distance of the fairgrounds his whole life, remains so passionate about the issue he insisted on following through with a promised interview even though he had to be admitted to the hospital for observation.
He realizes the economic case has to be made if this alternative vision is going to have any chance at all. Especially now, with Magic Plus on the fast track to gaining complete control of the property.
But there’s more than just money involved here, says Lang through coughing fits. There is culture as well. There is the chance for city kids to see calves being born, and there is the opportunity for other kids growing up in rural areas of come and experience life in the big city.
It’s that and everything else a fair that began more than 160 years ago could once again offer Detroit.
And that, in its own way, might be the truly magic idea — the one that seeks to take a leap into the future while continuing to embrace a vital piece of the past.
On the other hand, it might just take a miracle to actually pull off.
Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
photo credit: Michigan State Fairgrounds photos courtesy Frank Hammer
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