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State Fair’s Former Security Chief

Posted to on Friday, June 20, 2014

INTRO: The Governor’s staff has sold the state fairgrounds to Joel Ferguson, Marvin Beatty and Magic Johnson. On June 26th, their team will present a revised plan to the public at the Northwest Activities Center, 18100 Meyers in Detroit. The public saw the first plan in Nov. 2012. The men’s company, Magic Plus LLC and their partner company REDICO, say the community will like these new plans better.

Farmers around the state are still bitter that the fair was closed. So are local community activists. Nor are they happy with what’s supposed to replace it. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus met a man near 8 Mile and Woodward who some consider the soul of the community.

I stuck my camera through a chain link fence to take pictures of a house on the other side 100 feet away. It’s a modest, two-story, all wood with faded white paint. Then a thin, bearded, middle-aged man with a hat and sunglasses came from the street.

“This is the childhood home of Ulysses S. Grant. It was brought here to Michigan and placed right here as a center piece for the Michigan State Fair. It was the first state fair in the country and it would have been the oldest one had it still survived.”

State taxpayers put $500,000 a year into it. Former Governor Jennifer Granholm wanted to save that money so the fair closed in 2009. New York had the first state fair. Michigan’s was second. But otherwise, William McKenney’s knowledge of the fairgrounds is intimate.

“I’ve got a lot of fond memories going back to 1992. My first year out here,” McKenney said.

“What were you doing here at the state fair?” McCarus asked.

“I did private security. I started and worked my way from the bottom all the way until 1999 when I was appointed with the last company. I had the keys to everything out here. I got to know every nuance from the corner gate where you come in and the war monument all the way over to softball city. From E. State Fair Avenue all the way up to 8 Mile.”

“What are some other features?” McCarus asked. “What is that bandshell?”

“That’s where all the concerts took place. For the most they were free.”

“Nothing got out of hand?”

“Oh yeah,” McKenney said. “One year we had White Zombie out here. There was a riot. There was more than 10,000 on the other side of this gate. They stormed it. It was all over the news. We had the Detroit mounted police come in, the state police, police from surrounding jurisdictions that had to come in to handle that massive crowd. There were over 30,000 people on this side of the fence and 10,000 inside. There wasn’t enough of us that day.”

“Did you carry a gun?” McCarus asked.

“I got to carry one because I was a supervisor.”

“So what are you doing for work now?”

“I’m homeless right now. I’ve just survived colon cancer. I’m just coming out of a dark period of my life.”

These days, William McKenney carries his belongings in a shopping cart. He pushes it along E. State Fair Avenue.

“I’ve got food in here. I’ve got a tarp. It got a little cold out here so I had my scarf, extra coats and hats. Someone just gave me some shirts. Got some bottled water in here. I got a broom and a dustpan to keep my space and area clean. That’s how I was raised. Homeless does not have to mean filth.”

McKenney’s cart can be seen next to the wall of the bridge over 8 Mile. He sleeps on a mat next to it. Sometimes in the day. Sometimes in the night.

“8 Mile and Woodward. I have been there for four years. I lived there at that bridge. I kept it clean. All the while people would pick me up as I had cancer. I would go do odd and end jobs. I found more work standing at the corner and having people pick me up and surviving off of that than I did going out and going on computers and going to places, knocking on doors and putting in applications.”

The fairgrounds cover 157 acres. McKenney feels small compared to the fairgrounds size and age.

“I’ll be 43 this year. But I was a 21 year old young man when I came out here and started working. My mom used to bring me when I was an infant. My life and certainly a lot of my memories are attached to it. Just the 90 years it had been here. My mom told me stories about when she was a kid and had been here. Her mother. This was like a family heirloom heritage for us, the state fairgrounds.”

Most people don’t want to live near places that they knew and loved for years then got torn down or abandoned. Governor Snyder himself has an arm of state government working on a “sense of place.”

“The suburbs and Detroit met right here. There was more than just animals and concerts. There was a cultural exchange. You met people out here who you would end up having a connection for life with. There are not too many places like that anymore.”

McKenney is homeless. But he thinks beyond himself and questions what politicians are doing for the common good. Last year the Michigan Land Bank sold property to Magic Johnson and Lansing based developer Joel Ferguson. They planned big box stores and parking lots.

“That is what really surprised me… shut it down and gave it away like it was nothing without trying to see if there was anything that the people wanted to do about it. Without even consulting us. They work for us. It was something put on for us. Why shouldn’t we have any input as to what would become of it. I would certainly like to see this house not be destroyed. Be put someplace where it would be cared for. This is an American landmark.”

The fairgrounds could be an American landmark. But they are set to become forgettable, like thousands of malls, parking lots and national chain retail stores. 43 year old William McKenney will survive to see them. But he’ll be sad.

7 Responses to “State Fair’s Former Security Chief”

  1. Christopher says:

    The childhood home of Ulysses Grant is located in Georgetown, Ohio. He lived there from 1823 until 1839. It is still located in Georgetown, Ohio.

    Furthermore, publicly presented and articulated plans for the property include residential, senior living, retail, office, and an educational component. So it is obvious that your comment of “big box stores and parking lots” is incredibly disingenuous.

    This reporter thing is way beyond your abilities.

  2. chris says:


    There is ample proof that this was Grant’s house.

    But the records show that you are correct, and not our interviewee, William McKenney, that Grant did not live in the house as a child. Thank you for pointing that out.

  3. Frank Hammer says:

    Christopher, you are absolutely correct that the plans include more than big box stores and parking lots. In fact you left out the movie theater. But you also miss the point: the guy who made his life at the fairgrounds might have a thing or two to contribute about the use of the land for the future. The visioning sessions promised so many times by the MLB has never been done. You also miss the essence of what the reporter is saying (perhaps you were to busy finding the words to demean him): above all what’s wrong with the plan is its concept and configuration, beginning with its relation to transit of which make NO mention. Putting different uses on a site this large does not make it “mixed-use.” If you embrace the transit hub, transit oriented development, and mixed use (for starters) you would never come up with big box stores and big parking lots, which is what it continues to be.

  4. Euni Rose says:

    First of all, I am horrified that a young man who worked Security at the State Fair is now homeless.

    The argument that Grant’s boyhood home is in Ohio is not the point. The Grant House, as I understand it. is the home Grant and his wife lived in, but still, this is not the point. The real point is that the Magic PLus LLC group has taken State land and has planned an outmoded, 1990s style big box development. Anyone who is involved in 21st century design knows that transit-oriented developments are the key to success.Look at what other cities are doing. Look at Cleveland, whose Healthline Rapid Bus has transformed the entire Cleveland-suburban area into vibrant, exciting, redevelopment of business, residences, entertainment, all up and down Euclid Avenue from downtown Cleveland to Euclid, Ohio.In the six years that the Healthline has been in place, Cleveland and its suburbs have realized SIX BILLION DOLLARS in revenue. Wow! Think of this as what Woodward could be. As someone said at the meeting on Thursday, we don’t need a shopping center. We don’t need a theater. We need to preserve our history in a place that will bring our entire region together. We need a place that will show the world what Michigan can really accomplish. Joel Ferguson said at the meeting that people shop at Best Buy, why not at the Fairgrounds? He is missing the point. Right next door to the Fairgrounds is the Gateway complex. A strip mall. We don’t need another one! Someone else at the meeting said she does not want another Burger King on that property. As she put it, “Magic Johnson has already built 32 Burger Kings. He doesn’t need to build one on this site.” It was made abundantly clear at the meeting on Thursday that this plan doesn’t meet the needs of the people in Michigan. Keeping the history of the State Fair alive (from 1846 to 2009) as a new, exciting plan is put forth, a transit hub at the corner of 8 MJle and Woodward is what we need. Let’s go forward and do it!

  5. Beth Hagenbuch says:

    Christopher, I attended the meeting on June 26th where the Magic Plus plan was presented and articulated. I guess you can call it a public meeting, except that there were no public officials at the table to represent the public. First of all, next time your group presents your plan for 160 acres of taxpayer owned property, instead of having one small 24×36 inch paper copy in the front of the room that is almost impossible to see, please make a digital presentation that can be seen by all on the large screen. The plan that was presented did indeed show big box retail with large parking lots in front of it. Granted, the parking areas where not labeled and shown only as white blocks without parking stripes drawn in, however, as a land use and masterplanning professional, I could easily see the retail and parking components on the plan. On the other side of the large parking lots you did show a large area of housing, and a separate area for undefined educational use, and there was mention of a movie theater at the edge of the parking areas. We know very well that real mixed-use development is very different than a ‘mixture of uses’. A mixture of uses is typical suburban 20th century development. The public knows very well that places like downtown Ann Arbor, Royal Oak, Birmingham, Midtown Detroit are examples of mixed-use development; fine-grained with uses intermingled and stacked vertically. It is incredibly disingenous of you to imply that bigbox retail is not the main driver of your proposal for the development of the last large developable property in Detroit – that also happens to be at the regional economic and transit sweet spot of the region. The Magic Plus concept of the transit stops for BRT, Local Bus and Amtrak each separated by a 1/4 mile and all located 1/2 mile walk from the major retail at 8 Mile road is an interesting one – one that deserves further public debate. The question remains – Where are our public sector urban and transit planners? And why have they handed over the economic, urban and transit masterplanning of an iconic public property to a Lansing based retail developer? A quick study of how other cities and regions do this type of planning will show a very different approach.

  6. Ken Weikal - Regional Land Planner says:

    Christopher –

    How may cities have Magic Plus and REDICO built?



    Since Detroit is a city in crisis, the biggest question is, why is the Governor’s Land Bank Authority engaging a small Lansing based retail and housing developer to direct the City of Detroit’s master planning process, on the city’s largest single piece of publicly owned land available for 21st Century Economic Development or as Governor Snyder describes it, “the New Economy”?; the 157 acre State Fairgrounds property that is as large as all of Midtown, as large as Downtown, and bigger than the Wayne State and the DOC Medical Center campuses; this sleeping giant, this piece of public land at the center of south east Michigan’s future transit based economic recovery, that would be the flag ship of the million dollar Kresge Foundation/ Detroit Future City’s Framework initiative – how about instead of having this small developer doing our master/ city planning for us, we follow Detroit Future City’s vision on this property and show the world all that Detroit and Michigan have to offer to be regionally and globally competitive?

    Months of public input, thousands of governmental hours and millions of Foundation dollars were spent on the Detroit Future City Framework plan as a vision for Detroit as the anchor for southeast Michigan. No where in the DFC booklet, is the Magic plan’s type of 1990’s suburban development considered, recommended, or even mentioned. That’s because it’s old fashioned, it’s an old outdated model, and will not save our City in crisis.

    At last Thursday’s State Fairground’s public meeting, where were our public leaders from the Kresge Foundation, Detroit Future City, the Detroit Planning Department, Detroit Economic Development Corporation, Mayor Duggan’s office and Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties? If they were indeed present – why weren’t they up at the front of the room sitting with the developer, trying to convince us why a suburban style site plan with “residential, senior living, retail, office, and an educational component” is good enough as Detroit’s Future City? Is the Magic plan good enough to be the center of the strategic economic recovery of our three county region and 3.8 million residents?

    Let’s not get lost in the incredibly disingenuous details of Magic’s “this plan or that plan”, or whether or not Magic’s plan is “residential, senior living, retail, office, and an educational component”, or “big box stores and parking lots” with residential, senior living, retail, office, and an educational component. Or the detail that the previous Magic plan had 43 acres of open parking (27% of the site) and this latest plan has 55 acres of open parking (35% of the site), (Christopher – you sound like an expert – do the calc.s).

    The biggest question is – what is the best strategic economic solution for the development of this 157 acre piece of public land? A limited 1990’s suburban development or Detroit’s Future City?

  7. Euni Rose says:

    I was at the public meeting and was also dismayed at the absence of public officials. It seems as though they are so busy campaigning for themselves, that they don’t see the most important event about to happen before their closed eyes, and that is, the destruction of an historical site replaced by a shoddy, old-fashioned big box shopping center. As one of the women at the mic said, we can shop anywhere. We need our history in place, not destroyed. Most of all, we need a transit-oriented development ON EIGHT MILE AND WOODWARD. This is where the true renaissance of Detroit and the entire region begins. It was sickening to see the Magic Plus people fumble-bumbling their replies to the astute questions and remarks of the public at last week’s meeting. The Magic Plus people truly thought they could slip this plan past the people. Wrong! If other cities can put up modern, MONEY-MAKING transit-oriented developments, so can we. The fight continues!
    Euni Rose
    Southfield and proud member of the SFDC

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Giant stove that was moved from downtown to the state fair. Detroit was once the leading national producer of stoves.

Giant stove that was moved from downtown to the state fair. Detroit was once the leading national producer of stoves.

William McKenney at 8 Mile and Woodward Ave.
(click on photo to zoom)

William McKenney at 8 Mile and Woodward Ave. (click on photo to zoom)

William McKenney, 42, on East State Fair Ave. April 16, 2014

William McKenney, 42, on East State Fair Ave. April 16, 2014

Band shell at the fairgrounds.

Band shell at the fairgrounds.

Home of General Ulysses S. Grant when he lived in Detroit in 1849.

Home of General Ulysses S. Grant when he lived in Detroit in 1849.

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