February 16, 2014 at 9:47 pm

Michigan's revived State Fair bulks up for third Labor Day run

Michigan’s reborn State Fair will return for a third straight Labor Day weekend with more to see and do, according to organizers.

The privately run fair at the Suburban Collection Showplace is starting to come into its own, organizers say. Attendance was 80,000 last year, up 50 percent from the year before, according to organizers.

“Reviving this tradition, certainly, we’re just getting started,” said Blair Bowman, president of the Novi expo center. “We’ve had so many people come and so many people thanking us for bringing it back.”

This year, the Fifth Third Bank Michigan State Fair will include a Shrine Circus performance tent that is twice as large as previous years and more rides as part of the Arnold Amusement midway.

Bowman says indoor and outdoor displays also will have more content, with the return of the Made-In-Michigan pavilion, livestock exhibits and a farm market.

The Michigan State Fair opened in Detroit in 1849. It closed its gates on Woodward between Seven and Eight Mile in Detroit in 2009.

In 2009, then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm cut funding for the fair from the state budget, leaving the fairgrounds site vacant for more than four years. The fair is gone from its traditional site, and plans to redevelop the 157-acre property are progressing.

In October, the Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority decided to sell the land to athlete-turned-entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson and his Magic Plus LLC group for $4.65 million — about the site’s appraised value.

Johnson, a Lansing native, Michigan State and Los Angeles Lakers basketball great and part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, is working with Lansing businessman Joel Ferguson and Detroit entrepreneur Marvin Beatty in putting together a mixed-use project.

Dale Watchowski, president and CEO of Southfield-based Redico, the project developer, said work on the site is in the preliminary stages.

“Conceptual plans for the site include residential, retail, entertainment venues, open green spaces and a multimodal transportation hub,” Watchowski said.

Besides reviving a Michigan tradition, the Novi-based fair has been aiding local food programs. Last year, the fair brought in more than $250,000 for community and charitable programs, like the Detroit Shriners charities, Rotary and Lions clubs, local police and fire benevolent societies and the city of Novi parks and recreation and public library programs.

Over the summer, a new urban and rural agricultural youth scholarship program began using some of those funds. The focus is on nurturing interest in growing fresh local food in communities across the state.

“You’d be amazed how many of these kids have never seen a live cow or had an understanding where their food comes from,” Bowman said.

“We’re trying to build those connections.”

Agriculture is the state’s second largest industry, accounting for an estimated $91 billion a year.

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Jessica Fish, of Marne, cuddles with her alpine goats Cha-Cha, left, and J.J. while playing on a tablet computer at Michigan State Fair at the Suburban Collection Showcase in Novi in 2013. / David Guralnick / The Detroit News