Remaking the Michigan State Fair for everybody

All's fair

Sep 2, 2015 at 1:00 am

When Gov. Jennifer Granholm effectively canceled the Michigan State Fair in 2009, she ended a 160-year-old tradition that had been a summer draw at Woodward Avenue and Eight Mile Road since 1905. That move prompted a new group, Michigan State Fair LLC, to step into the breach a few years later, organizing a privately run state fair in Novi that debuted in 2012.

That puts the people behind the new Michigan State Fair in an unusual position, hoping to give attendees more of what they expected in the old fair, while trying to fine-tune the newer fair for a contemporary audience.

For instance, the Fifth Third Bank Michigan State Fair will have a butter cow, sponsored by C.F. Burger Creamery, and sculpted out of hundreds of pounds of butter by Tom Paul Fitzgerald, the artist who's traditionally created the dairy-based likeness for the fair in years past. There will be a midway and carnival rides from Arnold Amusements. This year, they've brought back the horses, and riders will compete in a horse arena sponsored by Ram Trucks. There will be sheep-shearing contests, and families will still be able to stroll through exhibition spaces featuring almost 1,000 different animals, including goats, pigs, sheep, cows, and rabbits. (One thing that will be missing from the fair is the poultry exhibition, due to the outbreak of avian flu in the Midwest.)

But the fair isn't identical to the old one. It won't have, for instance, Michigan's biggest pumpkin, but that doesn't mean it won't in the future. Steve Masters, the fair's executive director, says, "We've got some requests where people want us to do that, and as we get interest in things like that, we're adding them. We really want the things at the fair to resonate with people. We just don't want to do things because they've been done that way and were part of the old fair. It needs to be relevant to today's fairgoer."

Masters points to a new bunch of fresh approaches the fair has taken to celebrating Michigan agriculture. There's a Make It With Wool Competition, in which contestants spin and card wool to create garments they've designed, and then model them. It's agriculture, yes, but by way of fashion, crafting and design. Hour Detroit will sponsor a cooking demo stage, where local chefs will be turning local ingredients into locavore dishes and sharing recipes, as well as a bite or two. Kroger will sponsor a Michigan-Made Pavilion dedicated to Michigan food products.

The food itself won't be limited to corn dogs and elephant ears, although they'll have that too, and much more. Masters tells us, "Guernsey Dairy will have a huge restaurant inside where they're going to be scooping ice cream. We'll have Mexican food, subs, pulled pork, roasted almonds, hamburgers, and National Coney Island." The fair will even have a vendor selling roasted corn, with three different butters for dipping. The fair's Budweiser beer tent will even offer Michigan craft brews and wines.

Masters says he hopes to incorporate more farm-to-table offerings as time goes on, celebrating local food and Michigan agriculture. Masters says, "I love a strawberry out of season, and oranges all-year round, but that's what the fair is about, a celebration of agriculture, and celebrating the people who are growing our food, who are the stewards of Michigan agriculture."

The fair's local focus even extends to the music. The old fair featured a lot of national performers, many of them a bit past their prime. The new fair will have the Michigan Music Megajam, featuring such local luminaries as Thornetta Davis, Sean Blackman, Jill Jack, and DJ Psycho of Detroit Techno Militia. Then there's the State Fair Superstar Contest, in which performers trying to break into the music industry will vie for a cash prize of $2,000, as well as getting their own EP recorded, with an entrepreneurial coach, a songwriting mentor, a musical director hand, and a PR coach.

By some measures, the fair is a success. Every year, it inches closer to breaking even. It's certainly family-friendly, so much so that organizers reportedly ran out of space for strollers outside some attractions last year.

Masters says, "We have a unique opportunity. No state in the last 50 to 100 years has re-created their state fair. Hopefully, the Michigan State Fair is a representation of what state fairs can be outside government auspices. As we re-interpret the traditions of what a state fair is, we have to think about how they resonate today."

The Michigan State Fair is open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sept. 4-6, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sept. 7, at Suburban Collection Showplace, 46100 Grand River Ave., Novi;