February 3, 2009 at 7:17 pm

State GOP officials back closing fair

Some say $1.6B deficit makes shutting event tough necessity

Fairgoers pack the midway at the 2007 Michigan State Fair. Under Gov. Jennifer Granholm's proposal, this year's fair would be the last. (Bryan Mitchell / Special to The Detroit News)

LANSING -- Republican lawmakers welcome Gov. Jennifer Granholm's proposed budget cuts, including closing the nation's oldest state fair, reducing elected officials' pay by 10 percent and eliminating 10 government departments.

Those will be among the cutbacks she'll propose in tonight's State of the State message.

House Minority Leader Kevin Elsenheimer, R-Kewadin, said Republicans stand ready to help her streamline government.

"Some of these proposals the Republicans have been making for the past six years," he said. "If the administration wants to utilize some Republican ideas, we'll be standing there with them."

Added Matt Marsden, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester: "The Senate welcomes any and all savings the governor puts forward. These are difficult cuts but they need to happen."

Under Granholm's proposal, this year's Michigan State Fair, which runs Aug. 28 to Sept. 7 at the corner of Eight Mile and Woodward Avenue in Detroit, would be the last after 160 years. The state is already in discussions to sell or lease the 164-acre parcel.

Tom Coon, director of the Michigan State University Cooperative Extension Service and a member of the State Fair board, said one idea being considered is putting a soundstage on the land for the state's fledgling film business.

Elsenheimer said it makes sense to find a better use for the land. But he said it might be possible to relocate the State Fair.

"Just as we have the North American Auto Show in Detroit where the auto industry is, maybe we can move the state fair to where the agriculture industry is," he said.

The prospect of closing the fair is painful to longtime fairgoers, who came every year to see the "World's Largest Stove," the storied band shell and the popular Miracle of Life exhibit where children can see farm animals born.

"I love it all. We sit out there in our wheelchairs all day and see the sights," said Irma Henderson, 72, of Detroit, who has shown her quilts at the fair. "It's the only thing I look forward to in the summer. Why is the governor taking the State Fair away from us seniors?"

Regina Steiger, 5l, a homemaker from Harper Woods, said she hopes to launch a grassroots movement to save the fair. She has a scrapbook that includes a picture of her at the fair at age 2.

"They're killing off all the Detroit jewels," she said. "I know it's a long shot, but maybe we can take up collections and purchase our State Fair."

But state officials staring at a $1.6 billion deficit seem resigned to the idea that the fair will close.

Wayne Wood, president of the Michigan Farm Bureau, said the fair was created to keep farmers up to date with agricultural technology. But he said there are several farm shows around the state, and the Agriculture Expo at Michigan State University in July serves that purpose now. He added that the Farm Bureau has an agricultural education program in many counties and this year there will be a livestock expo program at MSU.

"It's quite a disappointment to see the State Fair go, but with change we must make changes," Wood said. "Our farmers have been preparing for the day when the State Fair is no longer there to reach the public."

State Fair manager Steven Jenkins said discussions are under way to build a charter school on the fairgrounds. He said there have been many advances in the last two years to keep the fairgrounds humming year-round -- including a PGA pro golf shop, a basketball arena, indoor equestrian center, the Shrine Circus and youth hockey.

"I hope these will be looked at before we look at selling or leasing," he said.

Rep. Jimmy Womack, D-Detroit, whose district includes the fairgrounds, would not praise or condemn the proposal until he hears more.

"We should look at the savings and whether there are other areas where we can get those savings," he said.

You can reach Charlie Cain at (313) 222-2470 or ccain@detnews.com">ccain@detnews.com.

Gov. Granholm will announce many cutbacks during tonight's State of ... (Alex Wong / Getty Images)