OpEd: State Fair Plan Unfair to Surrounding Cities

OpEd: State Fair Plan Unfair to Surrounding Cities

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The Michigan State Fair was shut down in 2009 by Jennifer Granholm. Since then, developers have been salivating at the opportunity to build at the iconic 8 Mile and Woodward intersection, right next to Ferndale.

Meijer is already in, but the rest of the Michigan State Fair property (about 157 acres) still belongs to the people of Michigan. In fact, someone recently did the math and figured out that each taxpaying household in the state owns two square feet of the land.

Unbeknownst to many of us, the Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority (MLB) is poised totransfer our land, for free, to a private developer.

That’s right: 157 acres of prime real estate for free to a group of investors, led by the stardom of retired NBA player Magic Johnson and Lansing’s Joel Ferguson. Developer Magic Plus LLC met the RFP minimum financial requirements of the MLB — a group that was formed by Governor Snyder in 2012 to “promote economic growth in this state through the acquisition, assembly and disposal of public property.”

Any development is good development right? Not so much. The Magic Plus plan has been deemed “big box boring,” and also referred to as a “1990s strip mall” according to public opinion in recent newspaper articles and stories online. The amount of pavement in the plan speaks for itself. And a look at Magic Plus’s past investments tells a lot about where they’re headed for the development: Burger King and Best Buy are two of Magic’s favorites; certainly a world away from Assaggi Bistro and the Rust Belt Market.

The Ferndale DDA has worked hard to gain support for local, family- owned small businesses that keep downtown Ferndale thriving.

So how will the development of the 157-acre State Fair property affect downtown Ferndale and its residents?

Some locals think that the plan should be severely altered to center around a regional transit hub, rather than some fast food joints and a sea of pavement. In response, Ferndale City Council wrote a letter to the MLB openly asking to be included in further meetings with the developers, while strongly urging that the land be considered for a regional transit hub. The February letter written to the MLB from Ferndale’s city council states, “We believe the sale and redevelopment of this property will have a significant impact on the City of Ferndale and the region as a whole.”

The letter, signed by our mayor Dave Coulter, also requested, “Any sale of the property takes into consideration the recently passed Regional Transit Authority, and more specifically the ongoing efforts to develop a viable Transit Oriented Development Plan for the entire Woodward Corridor and Southeast Michigan Region.”

Along the same lines, representatives from a group called the SFDC (State Fairgrounds Development Coalition) would like to see the land passed directly into the hands of the RTA, rather than into a private developer’s pockets. “The Michigan Land Bank will miss out on billions in transit investment,” said Jim Casha, an activist who lives in Sherwood Forest, our neighbor to the south, near the State Fair. Casha and the SFDC are leading a charge that follows Michigan’s “place-making initiative,” which was put in place by the governor himself. The SFDC is made up of local citizens, who are urging Ferndaliens interested in supporting the META alternative to speak up. One way to get started is by checking out their Facebook page, “Future of the Michigan State Fairgrounds.”

The SFDC has been holding community meetings (charrettes) over the last year with local citizens who were more than interested in amending the proposed plan and even expressed interest for an alternative plan. Through those community meetings, Growtown, along with architect Mark Johnson, developed an alternative plan: The METAexpo. META stands for Michigan Energy Technology and Agriculture (see the plan and several videos at www.growtown.org/blog/news).

The META plan includes a re-imagined state fair for the future; one that can include the traditional agricultural fair, plus an expo center (centered in the historic State Fair buildings). The expo center will be a showplace for Michigan’s technology sectors, including our world-class universities. “It will be a hotspot to roll out Michigan technologies and industries,” said Growtown’s Ken Weikal.

The META plan includes a regional, multi-modal transit station, an “economic engine for the city,” surrounded by plenty of green, open areas. Housing would be similar to downtown Royal Oak, which boasts a thriving city center where thoughtful place-making has condensed living, working, and socializing spaces together.

GrowTown, along with architect Mark Johnson, developed the community’s input into the METAexpo concept and visual graphic materials (as is typically done in design charrettes). The resulting META concept represents the SFDC and community response to the Magic Plus plan. The METAexpo concept was overwhelmingly supported when it was presented at a community meeting held by the FAC (Fairgrounds Advisory Committee). Over 200 people were, very vocally, present at the November 2012 meeting.

“You can fit the entire downtown of Royal Oak or Ferndale into the area of the State Fairgrounds,” said Growtown partner Beth Hagenbuch. She pointed out the huge amount of economic impact that kind of development, through the META concept, will have on the entire region.

“It’s place-making and smart growth versus a ‘power center’ strip mall. Power centers are category killers. In other words, they dominate a particular category of products and focus on vehicle rather than foot traffic.”

Hagenbuch said the META vision offers the kind of place our young people are moving to other cities to experience. “It will be the place to ‘land’ in Michigan and then fan out to the rest of the state,” she said. It’s the kind of place that supports further development of thriving areas like Ferndale, rather than competing with them, or drawing business away. It is the “strategic” in the term strategic economic planning.

Ferndale openly supports the development of the property but, as stated in their letter to the MLB, they “do think it is important that whoever purchases the site and is ultimately responsible for its redevelopment understands Michigan’s commitment to ensuring quality development that contributes to the state’s vision of a regional transit system and the associated positive economic impact.”

Ferndale also requested to be part of any design charrettes that the developers will hold in the future and would like to participate in the process as it moves forward so that, “all stakeholders have an opportunity for input.”

It’s been three months since Ferndale City Council wrote their letter and, when asked if any invitation has been sent their way from the MLB, Council member Melanie Piana said, “Development takes time to process. While the developer has yet to contact Ferndale City officials directly, I’ve been informed by many individuals involved in this development proposal that Ferndale will be included
in the discussions.”

Piana continued, “I’m confident the developers working with the State and City of Detroit understand the importance of connecting future transit with the proposed development plans. The economic benefits from this type of development ensure success at the State Fair property.”

If you’re concerned about the State Fair and its economic impact on Ferndale, contact the Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority: landbank@michigan.gov or RobinsonJ22@michigan.gov. For more information about the joining the SFDC contact Jim Casha at jim.casha@gmail.com.

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