What should be done with the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit?

A rendering of the proposed META Expo from the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition.

The old Michigan State Fairgrounds property sits at one of Detroit’s busiest crossroads, is adjacent to prominent rail and bus routes and has been mostly abandoned since 2009. But soon, the 157-acre property, beloved to generations of Detroiters and out-state residents alike, could see major redevelopment.

Just what that redevelopment should look like, however, is a matter of pointed disagreement among neighboring residents.

The question is also an important one, given the site’s enormous potential as a hub for transit, new retail and other businesses, residential development, green space and more.

The site sits along Detroit’s northern border with Oakland County and is bordered by Eight Mile Road to the north, Woodward Avenue to the west and the Grand Trunk railroad tracks — also used by Amtrak — to the east. In most other major American cities, property like this would probably have commanded hundreds of millions of dollars and been well on the way toward redevelopment by now.

Not so in Detroit. Since the last State Fair was held in 2009, upkeep and security on the massive property has reportedly cost taxpayers $1 million a year while the property sits in limbo. The state last year transferred the property to the Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority, which then solicited bids on what to do with it.

Of the three proposals received, the Land Bank picked a proposal by a group called Magic Plus LLC as the only plan with credible financial backing and that met all the other requirements set forth.

Magic Plus, a trio of business partners headlined by former Michigan State basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson, say the land has no value until developed. Instead, they propose paying the state 1 percent of any net lease revenue it receives or proceeds from property sales.

A rendering of the Magic Plus proposal, which includes a cineplex, retail, office space and multi-family housing.

In exchange, the group wants to build a $120 million, 500,000 square-foot mixed-use development with big-box retail, a Cineplex, restaurants, office space, diverse residential and green space. It would demolish most buildings save for a few, like the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse and a band shell, and it would develop an Amtrak train station. Projections say the development will create 1,300 new jobs.

A separate proposal called the META Expo, short for Michigan Energy Technology Agriculture, lacks financial backing but asks, “What can Michigan show the world?” It too envisions a mixed-use project that would revive the State Fair, serve as a business, research and entrepreneurial campus and develop a bus and rail transit hub under the newly created Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority. Interestingly, it also goes beyond the fairgrounds border to incorporate and reimagine the heavily blighted Penrose neighborhood to the south.

You can read more about the dueling proposals and how the fairgrounds got to this point in Metro Times.

I’m a homeowner who lives a few blocks away from the fairgrounds site, so I admittedly have an interest in what happens there. I’m excited that I’ll soon be able to pick up things like diapers and organic milk 24 hours a day from the Meijer store — a Michigan business — under construction on part of the property known as the Gateway Marketplace, and for what redevelopment could mean for surrounding property values.

Frankly, aspects of both proposals strike me as far-fetched and needing more work. I can’t help but be reminded of the disastrous Bloomfield Park development in Pontiac, an ambitious mixed-use development that collapsed during the financial collapse and today sits in weedy, half-built abandonment. Magic Plus in particular would construct tens of thousands of square feet of housing and spec office space in an economy that is still far from robust.

And while it’s great that both plans incorporate residential development, plans should address the demographics and heavily blighted state of some of the surrounding neighborhoods. No one’s going to want to live across the street from burned-out houses, no matter how nice the new units may be.

The state has elected to begin negotiating with Magic Plus but says nothing is yet set in stone.

What do you think of the proposals for the fairgrounds? What would you like to see done with the property?

Sven Gustafson

About Sven Gustafson

Sven Gustafson is a senior writer in the Office of the President at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. He enjoys food, running, soccer and exploring Detroit and Michigan at large.
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  1. marshall symons 2 years ago

    There is hope…a golden dawn is ahead of us. Detroit is transforming. There is amazing, beautiful potential if you look at the larger picture. Humanity is rapidly evolving its understanding of green technology and our deep connection to all life and the environment. Detroit is about 40 percent vacant, allowing a grassroots movement of urban agriculture and sustainable living to quietly sweep through the city. If we consciously incorporate green technology and living harmoniously with our environment, then we may create a future that rivals the legends of Atlantis.

    The proposals for the State Fair Grounds are being debated. The choice for our future is still to be determined. Do you want to see more of the paradigm that has gotten us to this point, or would you like to see evolutionary change for a brighter future. The State Fair Grounds is a prime opportunity to consciously develop a multi-purpose hub that can support the people and environment of Detroit and Michigan. It could be a center for transportation, fresh organic food, local businesses and meeting places. Or, it could be another stripmall of corporate businesses and blatant consumer culture. What would you like to see?

  2. junkman 2 years ago

    Nice story. Its an incredible space and oppurtunity for the city. Did the city itself come up with any ideas? Seems like the people of the city should weight in on what they need? Is there a video for the Magic proposal?


    • Sven Gustafson Sven Gustafson 2 years ago

      No, the city’s under financial receivership and is too broke to take it over themselves. And the state wants to get it off their books.

  3. Boblamh4@hotmail.c 2 years ago

    Why not along with the transportation center a: R/V tourist campground , a tri-county
    -Agriculture / poly tech high school ,an Exhibition center , A start for the Dream Cruise, an”Inter active auto museum”, Yes, and even A State Fair- we are robbing our children of rural experiences and the rural of urban experience What an anchor to bring people together and redevelop North .Det.Another disinvestment in Det like ch 56 in Novi $ 30.00 to go to So called Novi Fair-? Another “big box like Northland ?

    • Sven Gustafson Sven Gustafson 2 years ago

      Interesting ideas. There have been ideas over the years to turn the property into parkland or green space, though that seems unlikely if given over to private developers. Thanks for the comment!

  4. William A. Sawczuk 9 months ago

    The Michigan State Fair was the oldest fair in the country until it’s demise under the past governor. I enjoyed many fairs as a youth and later as a horse exhibitor in the 60s and 70s. As a Detroit resident back then it was the only chance to see Michigan’s great agricultural heritage displayed at the beautiful fairgrounds. I live in Wyoming now and was shocked to hear of the “sale” of these grounds and some of the classic buildings for almost nothing. I’m saddened by the fact that Governor Snyder will be remembered as the governor who gave away the fairgrounds. If you haven’t seen the old fairgrounds, please take the time to visit and maybe research the archives to see photos of the magical times which made lasting memories for generations of Michiganians. It is helpful to see the Iowa fairgrounds and the great strides they have made in preserving their facilities.