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Commentary: Tilting at Windmills?

Three years ago, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm killed the Michigan State Fair, then the longest-running event of its kind in the nation. The fair, which was how the agriculture industry showed itself off to the rest of the state, had been running continuously since Zachary Taylor was president. For awhile, it moved around.

But it had been held at the fairgrounds in Detroit every year for well over a century. Some years it made a profit, but it had been losing money and attendance in recent years. Still, some people never missed it, and it was about the only opportunity many city children had to learn about animals and rural life.

Despite Granholm’s lack of interest in the fair, the legislature wanted to keep it going, and appropriated money for it. But Granholm vetoed that, though the fair would have cost the state no more than $500,000 a year.

She said she thought the land could be put to better use, and current Governor Rick Snyder apparently agrees. This spring, he signed bills authorizing transfer of the 160 acres of the fairgrounds to the state Land Bank Fast Track Authority.

Currently, that authority is inviting proposals for its redevelopment, and say they are open to about anything except prisons, casinos or racetracks. But a new group called the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition has an interesting and unique idea for how to use that land. They think the state should revive … the state fair. Today, they plan to try to present 55,000 signatures they’ve collected to Governor Snyder in Detroit.

Euni Rose, a longtime activist from Southfield, told me, “Hey, I am well aware we could be whistling in the wind here.” But she, and a handful of others, think that while it is very late in the game, saving one of Michigan’s oldest civic assets ought to be worth one more try.

On Monday, the State Fair Development Coalition sent a letter to the governor, the mayor, and various other officials arguing in favor of keeping the fairgrounds. They claim this could actually be a money-maker for the state, and argue additionally for what they call “a year-round expo center on the site, with recreational and educational components,” perhaps including a place to provide vocational and technical training in agriculture and related fields, and turning the area into a public transit hub.

What they don’t have, unfortunately, is a way of paying for all this. Nor do we have, sadly, many politicians these days who understand the wisdom of investing in civic assets.

Clearly, the old way in which the fairgrounds were used, or I should say, under-used, no longer works. But in an age of renewed interest in urban farming, having no state fair in Detroit doesn’t seem to make sense either. Yes, there will be something called the “Great Lakes State Fair,” in Novi later this summer. (Aug. 31-Sept.3)

But it has no official tie to the state, and will be both expensive and out of reach of most Detroiters. The executive director of the Michigan Land Bank says their goal is to “restore the former State Fairgrounds property to productive use for the state and city.”

Wouldn’t a state fair ideally be part of that mix?

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