Rendering of the Amazon warehouse central to the development proposal for the State Fairgrounds site in Detroit. Via City of Detroit
Last week, we published a piece about a community group that’s been organizing around potential uses for the State Fairgrounds, the 160-acre site at Woodward Avenue and 8 Mile Road that has been mostly vacant since the fair stopped operating in 2009. The State Fairgrounds Development Coalition (SFDC) expressed disappointment in the process that led the city to sell it to a development team that’s planning on constructing a $400-million Amazon distribution center. The purchase agreement will be reviewed and voted on by Detroit City Council soon.
It was a classic tale of community versus the established powers of government, developers, and a mega-corporation who weren’t interested in listening to the people most affected by the development.
Except, it turns out, the story isn’t that simple (and it probably never is). Soon after the article was published I got a call from Josh “Bacon” McAninch, a Detroiter who lives on State Fair Avenue, literally across the street from the proposed Amazon facility. He says his community, which recently formed the State Fairgrounds Neighborhood Association, is much more optimistic about the development than SFDC. Especially the more than 1,200 jobs it would create.
“My neighbors who work at [Amazon’s] Shelby Township location love their jobs and want it to be closer,” Bacon says. “They require just a GED or equivalent. For someone who doesn’t have a job, to get work that pays $15 an hour and comes with benefits, that’s amazing and will probably change some people’s lives.”
He adds that the warehouse will be at one of the most accessible locations in the city by bus, so people without cars will be able to work there.
“People in nicer neighborhoods or Ferndale can’t see that,” he says.
That may be a reference to Karen and Frank Hammer, co-chairs of SFDC and residents of the Green Acres neighborhood. They’ve been petitioning for higher-skilled green or tech jobs, and are rightly concerned about working conditions at Amazon facilities.
Bacon’s neighborhood emerged from the Great Recession in considerably worse shape than the more insulated neighborhoods west of Woodward. Some streets near the State Fairgrounds are almost entirely vacant and the median income for the census tract is just over $17,000.
But the Hammers aren’t the only residents in opposition to the development. During a recent and highly contentious meeting with developers and the city, one resident who reported living “50 feet” from the fairgrounds asked, “What am I going to inhale when I mow my grass and plant my garden? … Jobs are very very important to the city, but so is our health.” Two others expressed displeasure at having to live near industry. Another felt the process was “rushed.”
Bacon, however, has been pleasantly surprised with the city’s community engagement. Mayor Mike Duggan visited his street to speak with residents directly about the development, and city officials have been quick to respond to his requests for information and changes to the purchase agreement.
When the State Fairgrounds Neighborhood Association objected to the entrances and exits that were originally designed off State Fair Avenue, it got the city to revise the traffic plan so trucks would be directed to major thoroughfares Woodward and John R.
Officials were responsive to some of Bacon’s other concerns as well, sending him studies that suggest excess noise and light won’t greatly affect the neighborhood, partially due to a tree-lined berm to be built around the warehouse. The city also plans to build a park or recreation center in his neighborhood.
“Amazon’s HVAC will be quieter than the traffic on 8 Mile,” Bacon says. “We asked and they got it for us. Now I have more information on my neighborhood than ever before.”
I also spoke with Tharmond Ligon, Jr. who was born and raised on Derby Street just blocks from the fairgrounds — he even sold lemonade at the fair as a youth. After moving back to the city over a decade ago, he formed a nonprofit (Rescue MI Nature Now, Inc.) and block club (Keep It Clean Block) to better his community through beautification and education.
He says he’s also witnessed the “deterioration of my neighborhood” and that maybe Amazon will be a catalyst for better things. “This is going to improve property values here and encourage others to come in and do projects,” Ligon says. “But they’re not going to budge until someone stakes their claim first.”
Even though he’s nostalgic for the Fairgrounds and would like to see the historic structures preserved, he thinks other factors are more important. “Do we put a half-billion dollar investment on hold, that’s going to bring economic development and stability to the area, for three historic structures?”
That’s not to say Bacon and Ligon think the project is perfect. Like the Hammers, they wish there were more guaranteed jobs or at least a first review process for Detroit applicants. Nor are they not thrilled about extra truck traffic — though they also don’t think it will be much of an imposition. Ligon even thinks it’s counterbalanced by solar panels and electric delivery vehicles Amazon will use at the warehouse.
Ultimately, they’d just prefer a viable project that helps their neighbors, instead of a glorified parking lot for PGA events at the Detroit Golf Club.
“If a use hasn’t been found in 10 years, where’s it going to come from tomorrow?” Bacon says. “The fair’s not coming back; it’s gone elsewhere. That’s a shame because it was a beautiful event in the city. I’d like to find a way to preserve that memory, but I don’t think keeping giant buildings that continue to rot is the way to do it.”
We journalists often talk about “the neighborhoods” as monolithic entities that speak with one voice. But Detroiters are a diverse bunch with different life circumstances, backgrounds, and opinions.
This was a good reminder.
I’m always interested in hearing multiple perspectives on these issues, which are incredibly complex, and hope that we can have those deeper conversations here at The Dig. Always free to reach out to me by replying to the newsletter or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.