August 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

At State Fair, what's old is new again

Tom Paul Fitzgerald, the Michigan State Fair but...
Tom Paul Fitzgerald, the Michigan State Fair but...: Detroit News reporter iKim Kozlowski interviews Fitzgerald, who has been sculpting the butter bovines for 20 years

Novi— When the Michigan State Fair shut down five years ago, Tom Paul Fitzgerald thought the metal framework for the fair’s Butter Cow was long gone.

After finding the armature in the trash, the sculptor rescued and fixed it. This week, under a webcam, he began chiseling 400 pounds of butter into a cow and calf — one of the longest and most popular traditions of Michigan’s annual Labor Day weekend fair.

Fitzgerald’s story is a microcosm of the death and resurrection of the Michigan State Fair, now privately run and held at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi from Friday though Monday.

It’s not like the old days, when the century-old fair was held in Detroit and relished a reputation as the nation’s oldest — until it became a casualty of state budget pressures. But the revived Michigan State Fair features old and new attractions while evolving as the nation’s only for-profit state fair.

“There is a nostalgia that goes back to grandparents, bringing their grandkids to see this,” said Fitzgerald, a retired Wayne State University professor who has chiseled nearly two dozen butter cows for the old and new State Fairs.

Organizers of the 2014 Fifth Third Bank Michigan State Fair — now in its third year near the shopping mecca of suburban Novi — are promising fair-goers a bigger and better family experience that celebrates agriculture, community and the state.

Attendance during the four-day event is expected to eclipse 100,000, up from last year’s 80,000. Though that’s less than half of the 217,000 who attended the last Detroit fair in 2009, organizers note that the original fair was held for 12 days and had decades of tradition to attract people.

Debuting this year are an American Idol-style talent contest on Friday and Saturday; a Steinway piano concert on Saturday night with local artists and a “Farm Favorites” cookbook, selling for $15.

These new traditions will complement those of yesteryear such as the Shrine Circus, home arts exhibits and agriculture contests, which include $30,000 in scholarships for students.

Other attractions will include more than 1,300 livestock exhibitors, with 300 sheep, 140 beef cattle, 65 dairy cows, 70 goats, 50 swine, 150 chickens and 130 rabbits. Instead of a birthing pavilion, a popular attraction of the old fair that was not revived to eliminate the stress it put on animals, there will be a “beginning of life” area with newborn and young animals on display.

And it wouldn’t be a fair without a midway, which will include 41 rides, including a giant Ferris wheel, carousel, Tilt-A-Whirl, along with new rides such as the pendulum-based Freak Out and pint-sized rides for tiny tots.

“It’s truly a celebration of everything Michigan, Michigan’s No. 1 family event,” said Steve Masters, executive director of the fair. “It’s really about the family and the celebration of Michigan agriculture and all the residents.”

Michigan’s first State Fair was held in 1849, and continued through 2009, when it closed its gates on Woodward Avenue between Seven Mile and Eight Mile. Then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm banished the state authority that ran the Detroit fair, and subsequently vetoed a $7 million appropriation, citing a budget crunch.

The fairgrounds sat vacant until athlete-turned-entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson and his Magic Plus LLC group bought the parcel and developed it. The site is now home to Detroit’s first Meijer store and other retail outlets.

A group of volunteers decided Michigan needed to have a state fair and worked to find a way to get private support, which includes Brighthouse Networks, St. John Providence Health System, Kroger and Pepsi.

Of the 50 state fairs across the nation, some are funded by the states, or run by nonprofits, said Jim Tucker, president and CEO of the Missouri-based International Association of Fairs and Expositions. But Michigan’s is the only for-profit fair in the nation, he said.

It’s important to maintain these fairs because agrarian life has dwindled as the world’s population continues to grow, he said.

“Agriculture fairs are educating the public of the challenges faced to feed the world,” Tucker said. “We have to be able to produce food for this country’s security, for world security. The public needs to be aware of these things and understand the importance.”

It’s unclear how much it will cost to put on the new Michigan State Fair. But event manager Blair Bowman — who owns Suburban Collection Showplace and the fair’s operator, Michigan State Fair LLC — said it’s expected to exceed seven figures.

Though Bowman is not expecting the State Fair to profit in its initial years, $250,000 in proceeds were invested into the community last year. More than a third went to the Detroit Shriners and Shriners Hospitals for Children, along with 19 other organizations such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Special Olympics.

“Nobody wanted to see the State Fair leave Detroit,” Bowman said. “But we want to rebuild this tradition.”

Some fair fans question why the event was moved to Novi, where it’s difficult to reach for Metro Detroiters who rely on public transportation.

“Before, when it was in the city, you could take a bus to get to it,” said Ferndale resident Leah Phillips. “There aren’t any buses that go out to there.”

Others wonder about the diversity of the crowd, with the fair’s new site in suburbia.

“I am so used to seeing so many different cultures in the old location,” said Adrienne Lane, 22, of Southfield.

But others who have gone to the fair for years, like Ronald Lane, say they will go whether it’s in Novi or Detroit, to see the exhibits, eat the elephant ears and homemade fudge.

“And then look for the people you know,” said Lane, who was a vendor selling camping equipment at the State Fair during the 1970s. “As you get older, there’s more people you know. I feel bad that it left Detroit. But it’s better that it’s here than nowhere.”

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2024

Tom Paul Fitzgerald sculpts the Michigan Butter Cow for Friday's opening of the State Fair in Novi. / Robin Buckson / The Detroit News
Left: From left, Tarzan Zerbini of the Shrine Circus, Al Miller, setup ... (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Above: Isabel Betker, 7, of Almont, above, lends a hand with the Michigan ... (Photos by Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)