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Commentary: The future of the State Fair

Four years ago, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm abruptly canceled one of our state’s oldest traditions, the Michigan State Fair, which had been held in Detroit for well over a century.

The fair had dwindling attendance in recent years, though it still attracted several hundred thousand people annually. True, it was also losing a few hundred thousand dollars a year.

However, that’s not all that much in a $50 billion state budget. The normally tight-fisted legislature disagreed with the governor, and voted to keep the fair going.

But Granholm vetoed that, saying the state could no longer afford it. She also said that she thought the land might be better used for something else, which made me think she had a plan to sell it to a developer with political connections.

But nothing happened for the last year of her term, or for more than a year of the Snyder administration. The fairgrounds just sat empty. The famous big stove caught on fire and was destroyed.

Then last year, the 163 acres of fairgrounds were transferred to something called the Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority, to be put up for sale. They posted specifications and waited for bids.

But from the start, I was told the fix was more or less in for a group of investors called Magic Plus LLC, whose public face was former basketball hero Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

The main players, however, seem to be longtime Lansing-area developer Joel Ferguson, who is also an MSU trustee, and Marvin Beatty, a former Detroit fire official now involved with the Greektown Casino. They say they want to invest $120 million in the fairgrounds, and gradually build a variety of residential and retail developments there. But their exact plans are vague, and that worries members of a largely neighborhood group called the State Fair Development Coalition.

Bob Lang, who lives nearby, told me he was convinced the state was intent on giving the property away for, quote “another antiquated, big box cookie cutter shopping center.”

The Magic group deny they are going to build a strip mall. But Lang and some of his allies have come up with an alternative proposal they call META expo -- for Michigan Energy Technology and Agriculture. They have beautiful architectural renderings of what it would look like. They would have room for the state fair, plazas and parks, green space and residential development. They just don’t have any money.

They have gotten enough attention, however, that even some state officials have expressed concern that the Magic plan has too little green space and no mass transit link.

Jim Casha, a civil engineer and chicken farmer, is urging the land bank to reject the Magic group’s bid and start over, when they next meet in March. That’s unlikely.

But it would be nice if the state required whoever gets the land to devote some space for even a scaled-back Michigan State Fair. Yes, there is something now called the Great Lakes State Fair in Novi, more than 20 miles away.

But the fair in Detroit was the only chance many poor urban kids ever had to learn about farm animals and agriculture. Shouldn’t whoever gets this prime real estate do something for them? 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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