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State Fairgrounds: Land grab under the radar

By Karen and Frank Hammer
Special to the Michigan Citizen

A recent statement by a “privatization” advocate at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy put to rest one of the enduring myths about why the State Fair at Woodward and Eight Mile had to be shut down after 162 years of operation.

In the lead up to its closure in 2009, the public was repeatedly told the historic fair was losing money so it had to be shut down. However, judging from statements by the center’s Michael D. LaFaive, the shutdown of the State Fair had nothing to do with its solvency.

Thirteen years before the last fair was held in 2009, “The Mackinac Center recommended the state should get out of the state fair business in its entirety,” according to LaFaive.

“We argued that fairs were nice, but ‘not a proper function of government in a civil society,’” LaFaive said. “In March 2003, we reiterated our call for an end to state fairs, and specifically to the sale of the property. Since that time, the state has taken the Mackinac Center’s advice and gotten out of the fair business.”

So, all the reports about how the State Fair “didn’t make enough money” were just a spin to get the public to relinquish its ownership of the iconic 163 acres (south and east of the Meijer’s strip mall) to business interests headed by Lansing’s Joel Ferguson and REDICO, a real estate developer.

The privatization of the fairgrounds is just one piece of a larger corporate strategy being pursued by Gov. Rick Snyder’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, in his push to privatize Detroit’s other public assets: the water department, trash collection, the lighting department, among others.

The legislation enabling the sale of the fairgrounds also established an advisory committee composed of representatives of five communities just west of the fairgrounds, including Greenacres, Palmer Woods, University District, Sherwood Forest and the Golf Club Association.

The Fairgrounds Advisory Committee became a funnel through which sur-rounding communities, city governments and other stake holders expressed alternative ideas for the use of the Fairgrounds that would best benefit our communities, the city and the region.

Community vision

With the aid of local architects and input from the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition, that vision took form in professional drawings which they coined META Expo — Michigan Energy Technology Agriculture Exposition. It was at odds with the plan pre-sented by the real estate developers selected by Gov. Snyder’s Michigan Fast Track Land Bank Authority — commonly referred to as a “power center.”

At a townhall meeting held at the Northwest Activities Center 18 months ago, the vast majority of participants favored the META Expo concept and/or expressed disappointment with the “Magic Plus, LLC” plan.

Kim Tandy, President of the Sherwood Forest association, an FAC member (and now District 2 representative for Mayor Duggan), expressed the sentiments of many, saying: “The lack of creativity and lack of community involvement is very, very disappointing.”

Magic Plus, LLC and Land Bank Authority have used the ensuing 18 months to initiate the transfer of the property, all the while going back to the drawing board to come up with a new proposal with the promise that it will be more responsive to the communities’ feedback of an alternative vision. The date for that public presentation is tentatively set for June 26, location not yet determined.

The most critical component, and where Magic Plus and META Expo differed the most, was on the question of public transit and its relationship to the region’s economic development. Central to the Magic Plus plan was an asphalt parking lot taking up nearly half of the property — typical of car-based “power centers.”

State Fairgrounds central to Metro Detroit transit. COURTESY IMAGE

State Fairgrounds central to Metro Detroit transit. COURTESY IMAGE

Public transit was virtually ignored. In contrast, the core of the State FairgroundDevelopment Coalition’s proposal is a “multimodal transit hub” situated along Eight Mile, bringing together a rail commuter line, light transit and/or a rapid bus system, and local buses, all at the intersection of two world renowned thoroughfares.

Besides linking 31 communities and three counties — Oakland, Macomb and Wayne — the hub would be the location for something called Transit Oriented Development. TOD has been shown as the key to revitalization of urban centers, with successful examples in Arlington, Va., South Pasadena, Calif., Cleveland and many other U.S. towns and cities. TOD is not an experiment. What the META Expo proposes is a proven job creator and driver of economic vitality. Based on case studies, TOD would increase the land’s value four times and add seven times more jobs than the Magic Plus, LLC plan accepted by the Land Bank Authority.

Gov. Snyder’s signing into law in 2012 legislation authorizing a Regional Transit Authority is an encouraging development, as is Magic Plus, LLC’s recent endorsement of TOD for the Fairground site.

Less encouraging is that the master planning firm hired as TOD experts to assist in the redesign of the Magic Plus plan, are not TOD experts. And least encouraging is that Mag-ic Plus and the various transit parties — the RTA, SEMCOG, MDOT, DDOT and SMART — are not collaborating to make the hub a reality.

Detroit: The only U.S. city without a Regional Transportation System

In October, 2012, Ray LaHood, then Secretary of Transportation, stated “Detroit is the only major metropolitan area in the country that doesn’t have a regional transportation system. Every other place, people have come together, set aside their own agendas, and their egos for the good of the people.”

Gov. Snyder referenced the Michigan Economic Development Corporation study showing the lack of transit is a major barrier to access to gainful employment in the region.

“This (study) is finally recognizing that our citizens desire a system that allows them to move about the region quickly as possible,” Snyder said.

So, isn’t the Fairgrounds land the ideal place for a transit hub?


To learn more about the META Expo online, please visit: and 

“The Future of the Michigan State Fairgrounds”

For more info, or to express your views:

Fairgrounds Advisory Committee (FAC)

State Fairgrounds Development Coalition (SFDC)


To check on the time and place of the June26 meeting:

Please click on “fairgrounds” at http://www.michigan .gov/landbank

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