The dream of a ‘21st Century’ Michigan Fairgrounds is dead. Detroit (and Amazon) killed it.

As Amazon proposal for Fairgrounds nears completion, Detroiters mourn what could have been

click to enlarge The dream of a ‘21st Century’ Michigan Fairgrounds is dead. Detroit (and Amazon) killed it.
State Fairgrounds Development Coalition
The Michigan State Fair Coliseum is as empty as it’s been for more than a decade. Still, on a recent Tuesday, a group of community advocates and city officials walked through the cavernous remains of what used to be one of Detroit’s most beloved public treasures.

“It was an emotional visit, people sharing their memories,” says Tonya Phillips, an attorney and member of the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition, a group of community activists who have spent years urging city leaders to turn the area into a showcase for urban innovation and transit, a “21st Century” fairgrounds befitting its storied past.

On Aug. 11, however, that vision collided with a reality that Phillips and other coalition members have long hoped to avoid.

That was the day Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced that 142 acres of fairground would be sold to private developers. The proposal calls for a $400 million, 3.8 million square-foot development with an Amazon distribution center as the anchor tenant. In order to make way for the massive warehouse, nearly everything in the project’s footprint — including the historic buildings which Phillips and others toured in September — are slated for demolition.

The site hasn’t hosted a state fair since 2009, but Phillips and the others who walked through its vast emptiness weren’t on a sightseeing tour. It was a reminder, she says, of the potential that still resides in the fairground, the pride invested into the structures and pathways that once bustled with crowds and livestock.

For Phillips, it was a reminder of what will soon be lost for good.

“There's just been so much hope for that site over the years, so much hope for doing something that could bring the region together,” she says, echoing the frustration that’s followed the fairgrounds for years as public and private entities wrestled with its fate.

In 2018, Phillips, an attorney and development director with Sugar Law Community Partnerships, joined the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition. It was a time when Detroit appeared to be getting serious about its former fairground.

“Even if we weren’t going to do a state fair again,” she concedes, “we could be looking at housing, mixed use, great parks — places where people could be again.”

That won’t happen, at least, not in the way Phillips envisions. And although the fairground’s best days ended more than a decade ago, the people who have fought for it aren’t quite ready to give up yet.

click to enlarge State Fairgrounds Development Coalition members (from left): Tonya Phillips, Marya Sosulski, Gary Hanafee, Frank Hammer, Al Martin, and Adrienne Warren. - State Fairgrounds Development Coalition
State Fairgrounds Development Coalition
State Fairgrounds Development Coalition members (from left): Tonya Phillips, Marya Sosulski, Gary Hanafee, Frank Hammer, Al Martin, and Adrienne Warren.
The fight over the fate of Detroit’s fairgrounds has been roiling for almost three decades. The roots of the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition platform — which opposes attempts to transform the fairgrounds into a playground for private developments — can be traced all the way to the mid-1990s, when a proposal for a horse racetrack sparked backlash from community members who refused to be sidelined.

That project collapsed amid criticism, but it set the stage for a pattern that stretched into the new millennium, as a line of developers promised to transform Michigan State Fair — though their plans always seemed to collide with funding problems, bad press, and community opposition.

It happened in 2000, when the community advocates marshaled against a proposal that would have transformed the fairgrounds with hotels, an outdoor amphitheater, and a racetrack. Community activists sued to stop the project, which fell through amid litigation and developer controversy.

Then the State Fair itself lost the support of the state government. In 2009, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm announced that Michigan couldn’t afford to keep paying for the 160-year-old fair amid a recession and housing crisis.

However, for advocates like Karen and Frank Hammer, who live in the Green Acres neighborhood west of the fairground site, the demise of the Michigan State Fair was just the beginning of the battle for its future. In 2012, Karen Hammer and likeminded community advocates founded the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition.

“This has been a persistent outcry from the area's folks, and it’s that this land needs to be used for the people,” says Frank Hammer, who previously served on the Fairgrounds Advisory Committee created by former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

Karen Hammer, who serves as co-chair of the coalition alongside her husband, says the group has surveyed hundreds of Detroiters over the years.

“Most people we’ve talked to mourn the loss of the State Fair,” she says. “They would like to see an updated use of the fairgrounds that incorporates some type of celebration of that industry and agriculture that Michigan is famous for.”

But for Detroiters who yearned for a return to an urban State Fair, that ship has already sailed — by 2013, a new version of the fair had established itself in suburban Novi under private sponsorship, and it’s been held there ever since. (This year, along with most public events, the Michigan State Fair went virtual amid the COVID-19 pandemic.)

That left a massive fairgrounds site undeveloped and effectively abandoned. (It also racked up a million-dollar expense every year for maintenance and security.) Development proposals came and went, but none stuck.
click to enlarge The dream of a ‘21st Century’ Michigan Fairgrounds is dead. Detroit (and Amazon) killed it.
State Fairgrounds Development Coalition
In 2013, when Metro Times profiled the Hammers for the cover story “Fairground Zero,” the proposal of the moment involved Magic Plus LLC, a partnership that included former Michigan State and NBA basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

The plan was pitched as the fairgrounds’ best shot at a second chance: A $120 million mixed-use development covering 500,000-square feet and featuring plans for retail outlets, residential development, parks, a cineplex, a “big-box” retail anchor, and a senior living home. The plan sought to renovate historic buildings and revitalize the fairgrounds into something that looked more like an outdoor mall.

For the Hammers, however, a plan to shuffle the fairgrounds to a private developer was riddled with concerns about a lack of public involvement. That year, the State Fairgrounds Development Coalition rolled out its own ambitious proposal, a “21st century sustainable concept” dubbed “META Expo.” The acronym, derived from “Michigan Energy Technology Agriculture,” was based on a wish-list of items gathered from the coalition’s community outreach. The concept would transform the fairgrounds into a regional transit hub, complete with solar arrays, greenways, a “geo pond,” and even plans for further urban development to the south in Penrose.

“People coalesced around trying to find use for the land,” Karen Hammer says. “The whole idea was that this would be a 21st century development that would encompass climate, sustainability, and reducing Detroit’s carbon footprint.”

Those ideas inspired the community advocates, but they didn’t find purchase in the places where it mattered. Today, META Expo remains a plan on paper only. Still, that didn’t stop the coalition from persisting in its mission to give the fairgrounds a better second life.

Five years passed, and by 2018, Magic Plus LLC’s plan showed no evidence of getting off the ground, let alone developing the fairgrounds into something useful. That year, Detroit paid the state $7 million to buy 142 acres of the site, while Magic Plus purchased the remaining 17 acres, a sliver of the original area it had once touted.

At the time, the State Fair Development Coalition was far from the only entity advocating for a new direction for the fairgrounds. In June 2019, as Detroit passed a full decade without its former State Fair, the coalition hosted a “Blues & Rock & Roll Festival for a 21st Century Fairgrounds” to drive awareness toward the languishing former landmark.

One featured speaker at the rally was Detroit City Councilman Roy McCalister Jr., who represents the area containing the fairground. In his remarks that day, the councilman lavished praised on the Hammers and the META Expo plan. He vowed that Detroit’s community benefits ordinance would “specifically” encompass the fairground.

McCalister was emphatic — “I can’t express it enough,” he said — in his stance toward the community involvement in the project. He told the crowd that it was the people, not politicians, who would determine the “great debate as to the future of this land.”

“This development,” he told them “is structured around you.”

Thirteen months later, on Aug. 11, 2020, Detroit unveiled the results of its private negotiations with a pair of developers who aim to transform part of the fairground site into the site for a new Amazon distribution center. The city had released no request for proposals on the project, which is predicted to bring 1,200 new jobs to the city.

The press release detailing the tentative purchase agreement (which still requires approval by the full Detroit City Council) began with Mayor Duggan praising the private developers behind the deal, Texas-based Hillwood and the Sterling Group in Detroit.

“What Detroit needs more than anything right now is jobs,” Duggan said.

Notably, the press release ended with a statement from the coalition’s former ally, Detroit City Councilman McCalister Jr., who had somewhat modified his positions from the previous year. After all, there had been no public debate before the proposal’s unveiling. And because the developers sought no public subsidies, the project isn’t obligated to include a community benefits agreement.

The Amazon proposal, McCalister said in the press release, “is a tremendous opportunity, not only for District 2 and the City of Detroit, but for the unification of Southeast Michigan.”

click to enlarge SFDC SC member Tonya Phillips with Nat Zorach. - State Fairgrounds Development Coalition
State Fairgrounds Development Coalition
SFDC SC member Tonya Phillips with Nat Zorach.
One day before Duggan's announcement, Frank and Karen Hammer learned about the Amazon proposal during a meeting at City Hall with the mayor and other city representatives.

While out of the loop on the negotiations between the city and developer, Frank Hammer says the deal didn’t come as a surprise. What was “utterly dismaying,” he says, was the lack of community input on a piece of Detroit land that had been in the public eye for decades.
During the meeting, Frank claims the mayor “presented this concept of this industrial zone as if it were in line with what we were advocating for eight years. It couldn’t actually have been more different.”

Frank has a theory.

“I do believe the reason they had a private meeting with us because they wanted us to be there the following day,” he suggests, “to be cheerleaders, and we would put our stamp of approval on what they presented.”

That didn’t happen — just the opposite. One week after the Amazon deal went public, Frank Hammer wrote a letter to McCalister, pleading with the councilman to address a list of questions about the proposal and to answer why “we were denied a role that was promised to us.”

The letter stated, “While we applaud the developers’ refraining from demanding tax abatements, we fear it is for the wrong reason — their unwillingness to listen to Detroiters part of an engagement leading to a Community Benefits Agreement. This is wrong!”

That wasn’t all. On Sept. 7, the coalition published an analysis of the $9 million price the city paid for 142 acres of fairground. (Magic Plus LLC retains ownership of the 17 acres it purchased from the Michigan Land Bank in 2018, which is distinct from the Amazon proposal. The company has not announced its plans to develop it.) The coalition’s analysis alleged that the city’s valuation “suffers from discrepancies” that resulted in a $3 million underpayment on the land’s appraised value.

The coalition website also features a new tab dedicated to Amazon and complaints about the company, including price gouging, worker strikes and instances of unsafe work conditions at the company’s facility in Romulus.

It’s a similar style of community opposition that has challenged previous attempts to redevelop the fairgrounds on terms set by private developers. It’s a familiar role for the Hammers, who have been waging that battle for years.

But it’s something new for coalition members like Tonya Phillips, who also attended the City Hall meeting with Mayor Duggan.

Like the Hammers, Phillips says she got the sense that the city’s team was presenting the fairgrounds proposal — which would include a new $7 million transit center — as a fit for the ambitious goals espoused by the coalition.

An Amazon distribution center, however, is not what coalition had in mind for the META Expo. Under the proposal, there will be no green areas, no innovative energy solutions, no residential structures, and no preservation of the iconic coliseum and other buildings. There would be just be a massive warehouse and other “light industry.”

It wouldn’t be, as Phillips hoped, a place where Detroiters could be again. If the proposal leads to a 2022 opening of an Amazon distribution center, it will be a place for jobs, and packages, and jobs involving the moving and sorting of packages. It will be a place for Amazon.

And after years of work, and hoping for something better, Phillips says she left the meeting with the mayor with a clear understanding of where she and the coalition stand — on the outside, looking in.

“It was not a genuine invitation to get us onboard,” she says. “It was more of an ‘FYI.’”

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