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Berman: Wayne County college explores fairgrounds site

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

In a sign of life at the former state fairgrounds, officials at Wayne County Community College District say they're in serious conversations with the fairgrounds developers to create a campus presence on the 160-acre site.

Once the state center of pig-racing and pie baking, the fairgrounds is being marketed by the Magic Plus development group and its partner Redico as a $200 million "live, work and play" community that will transform the now-vacant location on Woodward.

George Swan, the college district's vice chancellor for external affairs, said the school has a "serious interest" in the project as a site for training and workforce development programs or college classes.

"It's an opportunity to those students who have limited transportation because of the location," Swan said, since it is on a major bus line and a potential extension of the M-1 Rail project along Woodward.

The college isn't necessarily planning an expansion, but it has been broadening its presence across the city as a way to "increase educational opportunities" for students.

In a statement released to The News on Monday, Chancellor Curtis L. Ivery said "We are pleased to be able to see how the mixed use of this historic property can increase the population density, add economic activity and value to ... Detroit."

Joel Ferguson, who chairs the Michigan State University trustee board and is the lead developer, sees the college as "very key to this development" and envisions WCCC occupying between six and 10 acres of the site, probably in conjunction with other university partners.

Ferguson's partner, Marvin Beatty, describes the college's statement of interest as important to enticing other tenants to the site. "We are looking to evolve the historic state fairgrounds into a community that's livable, provides entertainment, food, retail — all these elements that the community has been desperate for," he said.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson, businessman and former Michigan State and professional basketball player, is another partner.

The developers have been working hard to allay community criticism that early plans reflected "a big box store" or "strip mall" approach to development that wouldn't improve the city or the historic site. They've hired a respected architectural firm, Smith Group, and invested more than $400,000 in plans and site development. But their investment to date is minimal relative to the ambitious goals of the $200 million project.

With the success of the adjacent Gateway Project, which includes a Meijer store and Starbucks, the fairgrounds project been poised for take-off — but no major retailer or other potential tenant has signed a lease or announced interest publicly.

"You will hear many announcements in the next few months," Ferguson said. The Wayne County Community College announcement is a signal to other potential tenants that the project is on track.

"Development is a very slow and tedious process, but we have some people who are very interested" in the site, Beatty said. "I think you'll see the timetable move more aggressively than anticipated."

Although the development group signed a $4.65 million purchase agreement, Ferguson's group can develop plans until an expected mid-2015 closing. At the same time, a citizens advisory group meets with Magic Plus and Redico on a semi-annual basis.

The next meeting, open to the public, is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at Cadillac Place in Detroit.