Community | Events | Real Estate

Old and new State Fairs

Living just a mile from the old State Fairgrounds site – a 162-acre site south of eight mile on Woodward Avenue’s east side – I have become intrigued by the place. The reason is that it links in with my two key professional interests – civic/community assets (typically this means parks, libraries, museums and the like) and urban development (in this case, a large vacant site in need of repurposing).

I began reading up on what made the Fair not just a civic asset but a State one. It wasn’t too long before I learnt that there are also now some new Fairs that have sought to fill the void left by the old Fair’s closure in 2009. Here’s what I’ve found….

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The old fair was an important part of the city and state’s histories.

The Michigan State Fair was first held in 1849. For 12 days in late summer, generations of urban kids got to milk cows and even see calves being born. Country folk got to see the big smoke. It was part agricultural show and part fun-fair.

In 1904, Joseph Lowthian Hudson of department store fame, sought (along with three associates) to give the fair a permanent home. I was interested to learn that Hudson was born (and lived until aged nine) in Newcastle-upon-Tyne a city in North East England where I lived as a grad student.

Anyway, I digress …. Hudson and his pals acquired the Woodward land and sold it to the State Agricultural Society for $1 in 1905. In 1921 the society in turn deeded the land to the State “to provide for the future holding of the annual fair under its direction”.

The future seemed bright. And it was bright. As recently as 1966, the Fair drew its record crowd of 1.2 million people –  by no means the only time the million-plus barrier was broken. There was even a revival in the 1990s following investment by the State and efficiency measures by the fair management – in 1998 paid attendance topped 370,000 (roughly six Lions home crowds).

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The butter cow in 2009 – sculpted from butter and a tradition of the State Fair (source: Great Lakes Gazette blog)

A 2010 history of the Fair by John Minnis and Lauren Beaver and this history site contain other wonderful images of the event. The Detroit Public Library (see link above) has over 150 images. There are also home movie clips from the late 1950s and late 1960s and a nice two-minute video of the fair in its latter years.

Closure does not mean that Detroiters cannot have fond memories

That the Michigan State Fair is no more does not mean that it cannot be a fond memory for Detroiters and Michiganians, and a piece of history worth keeping alive.

Did you get to the old fair? If you did, what are the things you most enjoyed?

And out of the ashes of the old fair have come new events

Since 2009 a couple of other fairs have emerged in the wider Metro area.

A State Fair has been held annually since 2012 at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi. In 2012 the newly-formed non-profit Great Lakes Agricultural Fair (GLAF) ran the event with the Showplace owner.

The two parties are however now pursuing seperate events.

The Collection’s owner is now sole owner of Michigan State Fair LLC, a for-profit company that runs an event  known, due to corporate sponsorship, as the Fifth Third Bank Michigan State Fair. It runs for four days, not the old 12 of the Detroit event. You can hear the executive director talk about this year’s event and the fair owner talking about the 2013 event here. You can also find out more through the 2013 annual report here. The team are keen to stress the attempts to keep much of what made the old State Fair appealing – including the Shrine Circus (pictured). They also highlight the very active steering committee of over 60 members – volunteers that share their time, talents, considerable and diverse experience, and passions with the staff team to help improve the Fair.

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The Shrine Circus is Detroit’s hometown circus and appears at the new State Fair in Novi. Now over 100 years old it also performed at the old Fair (source: Michigan State Fair LLC).

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The Novi event includes a strong equine theme (source: Michigan State Fair LLC).

The Great Lakes Agricultural Fair is working with the organizors (also an LLC) of the Big Mitten State Fair and Festival. This will be held, for the first time, in 2015 at the Michigan International Speedway out at Brooklyn (80 miles south west of Detroit).

If you weren’t confused enough there’s also the Upper Peninsula State Fair which transferred from the State to local authority control in 2010. For good measure its website claims it to be the only State Fair in Michigan!

What do you make of the new fairs?

Have you been to any of the new fairs? Can you get to them?! If so, what do you make of them? How do they compare with the old fair in Detroit? I will certainly send this blog to the new fair managers so your comments will be read.

And what do you make of having several state fairs? Should there just be one – maybe with the state awarding the license? Or will the new competition see events become better and more sustainable? Maybe they can even complement one another?

Whatever the answers, it is clear that metro Detroit isn’t willing to go without a major fair for very long.

Gareth is currently looking to establish an organization to exchange international best practice around ways to sustain community and civic assets such as parks, libraries and museums. Prior to arriving in Detroit he undertook a German Marshall Fund international Urban and Regional Policy Fellowship (in the Twin Cities, Detroit and Baltimore) looking at these same issues. Before coming to the US Gareth worked in central government as a policy advisor in the Cabinet Office (Office for Civil Society and Strategy Unit). He holds a Ph.D. in economic geography (the role of universities in regional economic development), as well as a first degree in social policy and administration and a Masters in civic design (urban planning). Follow him on Twitter @garethpotts1.