The Wall Street Journal published an article on February 19, 2009 titled The U.S. Can’t Host a World Expo, and Fans Say That’s No Fair. Fast forward almost seven years and much of this article is still timely and relevant.
THE U.S. CAN’T HOST A WORLD EXPO, AND FANS SAY THAT’S NO FAIR
The Last One Was in ’84, but Few Remember; ‘Do They Still Have Those?’
By Daniel Michaels, Feb. 19, 2009
For the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, France produced an engineering marvel, the Eiffel Tower. Not to be outdone, America shot back with Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition and the debut of the Ferris wheel. Attendance at the world’s fair topped one-third of the U.S. population.
Less than a century later, sparse crowds drove the 1984 New Orleans World’s Fair into bankruptcy. The stature of expos in the U.S. plunged so low that in 2001 Washington essentially pulled out of the expo race by quitting its membership in the world organizing body.
That’s not stopping Manuel Delgado from trying to organize a new one on U.S. shores. A marketing executive and Boy Scouts volunteer in Houston, he says hosting one of the international get-togethers would do wonders for America’s image abroad.
“Let’s face it, the whole world wants to bombard us with shoes,” he says, referring to the Iraqi reporter who hurled a shoe at President George W. Bush in Baghdad last year.
Mr. Delgado isn’t alone. A group in Las Vegas is drafting plans for a U.S. expo with the theme “The Future of My Future,” which will showcase innovations in vaccines and energy production. In San Francisco, graphic designer and expo historian Urso Chappell has been agitating for several years to stage a follow-up to the city’s 1915 fair, where visitors could float down a five-acre model of the new Panama Canal. So far, Mr. Chappell says he’s made little headway.
“All roads to a world’s fair in the U.S. are uphill,” says Mr. Delgado.
For starters, to host an officially sanctioned fair, a country must belong to the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions, or BIE. But the U.S. government left the 154-nation treaty organization, and rejoining would require federal legislation. An unauthorized expo could face a global boycott, as happened four decades ago in New York.
Act of Congress
Expo fans say the U.S. could win credibility as a host candidate if it has a national pavilion at the next big fair, opening in Shanghai on May 1, 2010. The catch: To cut spending, Congress a decade ago forbade federal funding of a pavilion.
To get around that, the State Department in 2007 requested proposals for a privately financed pavilion. Last April, the department picked a team led by theme-park developer Nick Winslow and Ellen Eliasoph, an American lawyer in China. The two have been racing to coax sponsorships from dozens of big American companies, whom they decline to name. They’ve also been honing plans for a $60 million, 60,000 square-foot pavilion complete with a roof garden and 3-D multimedia theater featuring wind, mist and a rumbling floor. The pair have until April 15 to line up the funding.
A State Department spokeswoman says the U.S. wants to participate in Shanghai if possible, but can’t use taxpayer money. Mr. Delgado says having the pavilion in Shanghai is “critical” for his own project.
Another obstacle that expo boosters face in the U.S. is apathy. Las Vegas organizer Mark Fries says the universal reaction to suggestion of a new expo is: “Wow, do they still have those?”
The first world’s fair took place in London in 1851, and was later copied by Paris, Vienna and Melbourne, Australia. The expos attracted millions of visitors and offered countries a chance to flaunt their wealth and sophistication by displaying inventions, art and architecture.
Early U.S. expos introduced the world to the telephone, the zipper and electric lights, plus food and drinks including ice-cream cones, Dr Pepper and shredded wheat. New York’s “World of Tomorrow” expo in 1939 featured General Motors Corp.’s “Futurama,” a sprawling diorama imagining the America of 1960 with automated cars cruising down multilevel highways.
So many countries were eventually hosting world’s fairs that in 1928, governments signed a treaty establishing the BIE, which oversees competitions for one big expo every 10 years and more frequent small ones.
With the rise of television, jet travel and satellite communications, fairs’ magnetism as must-see windows on the future has waned. Theme parks and commercial spectacles such as auto shows, meanwhile, sapped expos’ ability to thrill. Fairs have scrambled for relevance by focusing on big ideas like energy and ecology. Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany, for example, carried the theme “Man-Nature-Technology.” Japan built a pavilion from paper tubes that later got recycled.
In Houston, Mr. Delgado and his team of about a dozen people believe they know how to get people juiced for an expo in 2020. “We want really bizarre looking buildings,” says the 39-year-old native of Venezuela, who moved to Houston in 1997. He says his epiphany about organizing an expo came from fond memories of working at the 1992 “Age of Discovery” Expo in Seville, Spain, and meeting people from around the world. America’s expo amnesia has surprised him.
The Houston team is lobbying local politicians, whom they want in turn to press Washington for support. Mr. Delgado is also consulting local universities on urban-impact studies and investigating ways to tout Houston at the Shanghai expo.
“It’s a very fine line between being considered a visionary and a wacko,” says Mr. Delgado.
In Las Vegas, the 56-year-old Mr. Fries has spent four years sketching out a six-month expo, which he figures could cost $3 billion to stage inside the city’s vast convention center (that would avoid the issue of sweltering desert heat, says Mr. Fries). He says he’s not seeking support from casinos to ensure the idea isn’t dismissed as simply a gaming expo. And since Las Vegas itself already feels somewhat like a world’s fair, he adds, the expo would focus on “the individual,” not glitz.
Mr. Fries is also calling for the U.S. to rejoin the BIE, fearing a repeat of New York’s battle in 1964. That year, the bureau’s limits on expo duration and financing irked state development czar Robert Moses. After meeting BIE officials in Paris, he ridiculed them as “three people living obscurely in a dumpy apartment,” according to a biography of Mr. Moses. The BIE shot back by urging member-nations to shun the two-year event. Most did.
Washington finally joined the BIE in 1968, when San Antonio hosted the HemisFair, which celebrated the Americas. The 1982 fair in Knoxville, Tenn., boasted the world’s biggest Rubik’s Cube, but sparked little enthusiasm with its theme of “Energy Turns the World.” The 1984 New Orleans fair, where attendees could enter a 40-foot-high model of a pulsating human heart, needed an infusion of government cash to survive.
In 1995, a libertarian Washington think tank attacked America’s annual BIE dues of $25,000 as “pork-barrel spending.” Congress soon stopped paying. The U.S. skipped Germany’s 2000 expo, but made an appearance five years later at Japan’s Expo, with corporate sponsorships funding a pavilion. A talking life-size model of Benjamin Franklin greeted guests, and an eco-friendly concept car was displayed to illustrate the theme, “Nature’s Wisdom.”
Plans in Shanghai
Shanghai 2010 planners have reserved space for a U.S. pavilion. Chinese officials expect 70 million visitors, which would make it the biggest expo ever. BIE Secretary General Vicente Loscertales, who believes his agency was “collateral damage” of U.S. unilateralism a decade ago, now hopes President Barack Obama’s administration will find room for expos.
“Life is more than war and money,” he said on a recent visit to Paris’s Grand Palais, an ornate exhibition hall built for the 1900 expo.
Back in Houston, Mr. Delgado acknowledges his looming challenges by noting that Americans sometimes say a tough task “needs an act of Congress” to get done. He adds: “This is the first time I’ve done anything that actually requires one.”