Politics & Prejudices
The future of the fairgrounds
Well-connected developers eye old state fair site
Published: January 23, 2013
For more than a century, Detroiters marked the end of summer with the Michigan State Fair, the only opportunity many urban kids ever had to learn something about farming, animals and agriculture.
It was as much a part of life as snow in the winter and the forsythia blooming along the highways in spring. You could see piglets and calves actually get born, eat maple sugar candy, and go on all the amusement park rides. There was the giant butter cow (and calf), handicrafts, lots of kitsch and the chance to earn a blue ribbon, even for city kids raising rabbits or chickens.
The fair ended every summer when Labor Day came and it was time to go back to school. Over time, fashions changed, attendance dwindled, and the fair began to lose money.
But hundreds of thousands of Detroit-area folks still went, every year, right up through the fall of 2009.
That’s when Jennifer Granholm, otherwise one of the most forgettable governors in our history, killed the Michigan State Fair. The state couldn’t afford the few hundred thousand it was losing on the fair, she sniffed.
That was too much even for the tight-fisted Republicans in the Michigan Legislature. They voted to restore the fair’s funding — and Granholm vetoed that bill.
She said the land could be better used in some other way. Michigan traditions didn’t mean anything to Granholm, who has since gone back to California, where she grew up.
At the time, I thought that her idea of a “better use for the land,” meant that she had a plan to turn it over to some rich developer with connections to the Democrats, or her campaign.
But nothing happened during the remaining year of her term. Gov. Rick Snyder, however, has a track record of making things happen, and never seeing a business plan he didn’t like.
Private enterprise, in his view, is the salvation of all mankind, and the more of the people’s property that can be turned over to private developers, the better.
After languishing abandoned for three years, the Legislature voted last year to turn the fairgrounds over to the State of Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority.
Curiously, virtually the only objections came from few purest conservative Republicans. State Rep. Tom McMillin of Rochester Hills, for example, said: “If the desire is to sell the land, then put it up for sale,” rather than “cut deals with select well-connected people.”
Poor Tommy! Cutting deals with the in-crowd is the name of the game in Lansing. The 163-acre fairground site was indeed conveyed to the land bank, where from the start, the fix seemed to be in for a group of investors called Magic Plus, LLC.
As the name suggests, the public face of the group is former basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson, though the real players seem to be Joel Ferguson, the Lansing-area developer, and Marvin Beatty, a former Detroit deputy fire commissioner who these days is a vice president of the Greektown Casino.
They say they want to invest $120 million in the project, to create “an economically transformative destination for living, shopping and entertainment in the city of Detroit.”
What that really means, however, is anything but clear, and that worries members of a group called the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition.
There’s Jim Casha, for example, a civil engineer who grew up in Detroit, and still lives here when he isn’t running his horse and chicken farm in Ontario. He appeared before the Land Bank last week to beg them to reconsider.
“Because the Magic Plus plan falls so far short of the people’s expectations and because of the recent passage of the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) this proposal should be rejected and the process started over,” he argued.
What he’d like to see is a beautifully designed plan he and his allies call META – short for Michigan Energy Technology (and) Agriculture. They want to use part of the site as headquarters for the new metro-wide rapid bus service that seems likely to start up now that a Regional Transportation Authority has been created.
They’d also have room to bring the state fair back, plus a nice hotel, parks and plazas, green space and residential development. Their well-thought-out plan is beautiful.
On paper, it appears far superior to the shadowy plans of Magic Plus. The only problem is that META doesn’t have any money, as far as I can see, nor any major backers.
They have managed to raise some concerns about the Magic plan, enough so that the State Fairground Advisory Committee has expressed concerns about the fact that there is a lack of green space and no regional mass transit link.
Joel Ferguson found himself needing to proclaim that “we are not building a strip mall,” though it still isn’t clear what kind of “mixed use” structures will be built, even though last summer they were talking about doing the project in “specific and timely phases.”
Whatever that means.
Given that Detroit’s first Meijer store is being built next door, it wouldn’t seem that another strip mall is needed.
But this has been the people’s land ever since the founder of Hudson’s sold it to the Michigan State Agriculture Society, back in 1905.
Jennifer Granholm sold out Detroit children, three years ago, by killing the fair. Under my government, whoever finally gets this land would have to operate it with the public interest in mind, and in partnership with the Detroit Works plan for rebuilding Detroit unveiled a few weeks ago.
And provide space so that every year in the late summer, we could once again have an authentic, affordable state fair.
Republican treason? Last week, 13 Republicans in the Michigan State Senate took a stand similar to that of Southern slaveholders in the 19th century, who argued that their states had the right to “nullify” any federal laws they didn’t like.
What the modern nullifiers did was introduce a proposed “Michigan Firearms Freedom Act” claiming any new federal regulation of firearms would be null and void in Michigan.
> Email Jack Lessenberry