What's the future for the beloved bandshell at the old State Fairgrounds?

Construction underway for $400M Amazon site
Posted at 8:02 AM, Jan 26, 2021

(WXYZ) — Construction is already underway at Detroit's old State Fairgrounds, a portion of the 142-acre site to become an Amazon distribution site, promising more than 1,200 jobs and millions in tax revenue over the coming years.

For many city leaders including Mayor Duggan, it's a symbol of economic resurgence for District 2 and the City of Detroit; the city council voted 6-2 in October to approve the sale, which will also fund a new DDOT Transportation Center. There's a portion of the Amazon site drawing calls for a pause, the old bandshell. It once welcomed acts like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald and later Alice Cooper and Three Dog Night.

If you look at earlier site plans it’s on part of the [Amazon] parking lot," said preservationist Francis Grunow. He's working as a consultant for advocacy group D4 (Doing Development Differently in Metro Detroit). "So something needs to happen, either Amazon needs to sort of shift its thinking about how it fits on the site or maybe it needs to move," he said.

The bandshell's roots in the city's music history run deep and for many, demand the venue is somehow saved. Action News viewer John Hardy wrote on the Channel 7 Facebook page: "So so many many memories of that place! All the groups that played there during the State Fairs when people around here were growing up! It was the original concert venue in Detroit...""So much history has taken place at the iconic bandshell," Kathleen Moore of Waterford wrote on a Change.orgpetition to save the bandshell, slated for demolition.

“You have performers that broke color barriers and musicians that broke different barriers for social issues. Everything from the history of Rock N Roll and protest music and beyond," David Gifford of Transit Guide Detroit said.Gifford recently wrote an opinion piece on the bandshell's impending destruction. He thinks there's too much history there to bulldoze."To lose this site, it would be a great tragedy in Detroit," he said.

The site hasn't been used since 2009 and the bandshell itself is in visible decay, but Gifford, who is also a musician, said with local music venues struggling right now, an outdoor venue like this one still has great potential.

“It seems to be kind of split 50/50 some people just think we should have the progress, we should move on if it hasn’t been used that we don’t need it anymore," Gifford said.

Amazon has promised 1,200 jobs starting at $15 an hour on the site. The distribution center is expected to generate $77 million in tax revenue over the next decades.

The company released this statement to 7 Action News on Dec. 18, when we first reported on efforts to keep the bandshell: "Amazon appreciates the sentimental and historic value of the bandshell to the Detroit community. We are working closely with the developer to assess every possibility to try to preserve the structure," it said.

The bandshell is also now eligible for local historic designation. Three other buildings at the old State Fairgrounds; the dairy cattle barn, coliseum and agriculture building are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"We have not received any official request for a local designation for the historic bandshell at the state fairgrounds," said Director of Detroit's Historic Designation Advisory Board, Janese Chapman. But Chapman explains, designation wouldn't be a save-all for the beloved bandshell."A possible designation does not guarantee no demolition," Chapman told Action News.

It would however require a study, a resolution by the board, additional public input and an eventual city council vote. It would also require an additional local review before any bulldozing were to take place. The process for local historic designation generally takes between 8-10 months, Chapman explained. And the clock is ticking for the bandshell.

Despite public cries to save the structure and social media campaigns to keep it standing, ultimately Amazon and the site's developers hold the cards.

"It doesn’t hurt things generally but ultimately it’s not necessarily a legal mechanism it’s a court of public opinion," Grunow said of efforts thus far to keep the bandshell.

Action News reached out to the developer, Hillwood Investment Properties and again to Amazon for a further comment. We have not heard back.

As for the the site as a whole, the City of Detroit is conducting a feasibility study to include the three buildings with national historic designation; dairy cattle barn, coliseum and agriculture building. The 90-day window for that study closes Feb. 22, however a city spokesperson told Action News it's expecting to extend it by 45 days and that the city will have a decision on the how to approach those buildings by April.