Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 3, 2013

Lessenberry: The future of the fairgrounds


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

The fair moved around for a while, till 1905, when Joseph L. Hudson, founder of the state's iconic department store chain, bought some 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.

The fair was the only opportunity many urban kids had to see farm animals, some of which they could watch being born.

Then, four years ago, then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm suddenly killed the state fair by crossing it out of the budget. Now, there is an intense debate over what to do with the land.

While one group of big-name developers seem to have the inside track, a plucky group of local activists have their own set of plans — and insist that there should still be some room for a fair.

"We haven't made a formal decision, but there is only one proposal that has met the minimum standards," set for bids, said Kim Homan. An attorney, she is also the executive director of the Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority.

That is the agency now charged with figuring out the future of the 157-acre fairgrounds area. Though there were rumors that a big developer was in the wings when Granholm killed the fair in 2009, nothing happened for the last year of her term, nor the first year of Gov. Rick Snyder's administration.

The buildings slowly began to deteriorate; the iconic giant wooden stove caught fire and burned. Finally, last April, the Legislature voted to transfer the grounds to the land bank.

They promptly put out a request for proposals. Three were received, though two fell quickly by the wayside. Now, the only one remaining belongs to Magic Plus, LLC, a group for whom the public face is, as the name suggests, former basketball hero Earvin "Magic" Johnson, though he isn't the only investor.

In fact, the major players seem to be Joel Ferguson, a longtime Lansing developer and Michigan State University trustee, and Marvin Beatty, a vice president of the Greektown casino. They say that if their bid is accepted, they plan to build a variety of developments in stages.

Overall, they say they plan to invest $120 million, But that doesn't impress members of a neighborhood-based group, the State Fair Development Coalition.

Jim Casha is a 57-year-old civil engineer and a farmer who lives both in Detroit and Ontario, whose card proudly proclaims that he is "The Chicken Man." He pleaded with the Land Bank at their last public meeting on the fairgrounds Jan. 17.

"Because the Magic Plus proposal falls so far short of the people's expectations and because of the recent passage of the Regional Transit Authority legislation, this proposal should be rejected and the process started over," Casha argued.

He was referring to a new authority designed to operate a network of high-speed buses throughout the three major metropolitan counties, something signed into law, but which can't happen until the counties each approve millages to pay for it.

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

They have put together a beautifully rendered set of architectural drawings of what their vision for the fairgrounds would look like. They'd leave some space for an annual fair.

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

However, Homan says that doesn't mean the state couldn't require any bidder to make changes in their proposal.

The fast-track authority's next meeting is March 16, and Homan confirmed that it is possible they could accept the Magic Plus group's bid then.

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

In any event, it seems sadly 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 anywhere near a farm.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.