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5 More Questions: Mark Ritchie on Minnesota’s World’s Fair ambitions

MinnPost photo by Brian Lambert
Mark Ritchie: "You want this to be an opportunity for their kids to be inspired — by possibilities within their interests and things they may never have imagined."

It’s safe to say most of us have lost track of World Fairs. Erik Larson’s best-seller “The Devil in the White City,” set amid the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, seems to have solidified a notion that such things ceased operating decades ago. Even if you recall the World’s Fair in Flushing, New York, that is an event now 50 years in the past.

But fairs not only continue to this day, there’s a bidding process and an elaborate protocol to staging one every five years. Milan, Italy, will host the 2015 event and Dubai won the rights to “Expo 2020.” San Francisco and Houston are in the mix for 2030 or 2035. But … there are smaller fairs, or expositions, in between the large ones. This is where out-going Secretary of State Mark Ritchie comes into the picture. Currently, he is the most visible face of a local group interested in hosting a Minnesota event in 2023. Currently Lodz, Poland, is the only other city showing an interest in a 2023 event.

As you would expect, Ritchie is enthusiastic and upbeat about the idea, and a little restless with skeptics who arrive with a fistful of doubts. Such as: After the NFL’s 2018 Super Bowl demands were revealed, what is the public tab for police overtime, infrastructure, etc., really going to be? And how will the public ever know what they’re being charged for? And … are we talking just an oversized corporate trade show here, plastered with more logos than a NASCAR racer? What is the theme — the “hook” — that lures people to Minnesota over three summer/fall months nine years from now? What happens to the site after the show wraps? Sochi, Russia’s Olympic venue, is already a ghost town.

Despite hysterical criticism from the usual partisan quarters, Ritchie has credibility on the matter of transparency. He applied commendable external oversight to the 2008 Al Franken/Norm Coleman recount process. His affect is that of a decent, can-do kind of guy. And he clearly has energy for making the pitch.

We met in his State Office Building suite.

MinnPost: The public tab for facilities, stadiums, for privately owned enterprises has created heightened suspicion in some people’s minds about actual costs. Who would actually pay for this?

Mark Ritchie: Look, the federal government several years ago sent a letter to the international agency in France that runs these fairs [the Bureau of International Expositions, BIE] saying that the United States would no longer pay dues, which in effect took the government and taxpayers out of the equation. That has not stopped American companies from remaining involved. Private money built the pavilion in Shanghai [in 2010], a fair that drew 75 million people. And it’s important to keep in mind the difference in sizes from fairs like Shanghai, which run in the “zero” and five” years and the smaller ones, such as we’re talking about here. Smaller fairs are restricted to approximately 61 acres — or about the size of the Ford plant site. Arden Hills [the once-proposed Vikings stadium site] is a good one, because it needs serious work that could use the infrastructure.

Buildings and infrastructure must be designed to be deconstructed or repurposed. These smaller fairs typically draw between 10 and 15 million people. The Mall of America runs 43 million through its place each year. There are 50 million people within a one-day drive from here. 75 percent of World Fair visitors will come from within a day’s drive. The rest come from longer distances and overseas.

But you ask about the actual cost. People, private concerns, pay for their own pavilions, so the real issue is the infrastructure.

MP: And the hook for Minnesota is what? Something to do with agriculture and medical technology? I get the appeal of Milan; northern Italy and food. But what makes families come to Expo Minnesota 2023, or whatever, for a summer vacation?

MR: Well, you say “hook,” by which I think you you mean “theme,” and that’s to be decided. That’s one reason we [were] out at the [State] Fair asking people for ideas. The formal application has to be in by November of 2016. So we have time to solicit ideas from anyone who’s interested. Agriculture and food, sure. Medical technology and treatment, yes. Or health and wellness. But there’s also water. There’s innovation. We’re the number one place for cooperatives, civic participation. But at the end of the day I think the discussion will be about how we want to present ourselves to the world in 2023. What will be the theme that we want to use to talk to the rest of the world nine years from now?

MP: I use the word “hook” because it suggests a bit more of an emotional appeal. So is the hook to create a mass attraction, something for families, kids people of all interests, or is it primarily a very large trade show where Cargill and Mayo and 3M and Medtronic show off what they can do?

5 More QuestionsMR: No. Families. Kids. You want this to be an opportunity for their kids to be inspired — by possibilities within their interests and things they may never have imagined. The ’64 World’s Fair was an inspiration to me after I visited it as a kid. I think Mayo is probably the best known local brand, worldwide. And the medical technology industry that has grown up around it suggests it is a strong contender for a theme. But it’s open for discussion. Health in general is an option.

MP: Look, as I play skeptic here, and God knows you’ll run into plenty of this, I don’t doubt that people generally would like to see something like this happen. And they’d like to see it succeed. We’re justifiably proud of a lot of what we have here, and done right it could be a boon to the region. But the recent experience with the NFL, the taxpayer tab for the Vikings stadium, the demands for the [2018] Super Bowl, the lack of straight answers about public costs for hosting that game and, if they check it out, the dismal experience in New Orleans in 1984, where the taxpayers had to bail the fair out, has the antennae up for these kinds of things.

MR: But what does New Orleans have to do with the Twin Cities? When you talk about transparency, asking what a Super Bowl game will cost me as a taxpayer is different than asking the Mall of America what it cost their various tenants to stage an event or remodel of whatever. These might be of prurient interest to some people and they might have value in terms of selling journalism or yellow journalism. But even if you want to talk about New Orleans, remember to factor in that whatever problems the fair itself had, which I cannot imagine happening here, that event gave [the city] the New Orleans Jazz Festival, which has been a tremendous boon to that city.

MP: As you talk I’m wondering if it is possible or if you’re thinking about coordinating the perennial summer events of Minnesota into this idea? And others, too. A kind of Aspen Ideas Festival, perhaps. MPR has launched something like it, with its Top Coast idea. And around the country what are the premiere social/future-oriented events? I think of South by Southwest in Austin, which has blended music and tech. There’s also all the theater here. The Fringe Festival. Could that be coordinated? And even the State Fair? (Later the notion of drawing in transient tech/social media-oriented events like the NetRoots Nation confab popped to mind.)

MR: The State Fair people have shown interest. And, yes, we have disparate events that could be stacked a bit. We host the Nobel Conference [at Gustavus Adolphus]. Elsewhere there’s talk of a Davos conference on food and ag every couple years. There are lots of angles and ideas, but first you really have to stand up and say, “We’re serious about this. We want to do it.” Simply saying that changes your status on the national and world stage.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by David Broden on 09/23/2014 - 11:06 am.

    Priorities in Minnesota

    Let;’s get a bit serious and think about the future of MN. What will a Worlds Fair or Expo do for all of MN? We need a vision and path for the state-for the economy of the next generation. The worlds fair project is simply an idea of the past looking to the future. And we have a soon to be unemployed politician looking for a big 6 figure income. Using the funds for the vision of the future is much more valuable and will realize benefits sooner and longer term. Will someone please move the State and private sectors to defining and achieving the future of Mn with some well stated vision objectives and paths forward. We in Mn do not set up new organizations just to fund past politicians or do we???

    Dave Broden

  2. Submitted by Blaine Thrasher on 09/23/2014 - 02:57 pm.

    Marketing Minnesota

    I fondly remember attending the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle as a series of firsts: first time flying, first visit to Seattle, first experience learning about other cultures, etc. I have been a fan of these expositions ever since. Rather than take a cynical approach to this concept (Really? We are doing this just to give Mark Ritchie a job? Who knew?!), it should be seen as an opportunity to promote those things that are important to the people of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest (I believe that is what Mark was suggesting). The possible themes for this exposition are many: water (a biggie), med/tech, education, agriculture, health and wellness, climate change (this should be on the agenda for all expositions of this kind), the arts, entertainment, urban development, and much more. And I like the idea of incorporating existing events into a world’s fair: state fair, Nobel Conference, state high-school hockey tournament (showing my bias), and the like. I hope this idea continues to move forward!

  3. Submitted by Steve Heckler on 09/23/2014 - 09:32 pm.

    Minnesota is a perfect place for a World’s Fair!

    This is Steve Heckler chiming in, the founder of the Minnesota world’s fair project. Two years ago I attended my fourth world’s fair in Yeosu Korea, Expo 2012. The fair’s theme, The Living Ocean and Coast, brought together over 100 nations to dialog and identify solutions to this real global concern. But as pointed out a world’s fair is not a trade show. It is much more. In addition to the international pavilions, Expo 2012 was also about a re-development of a seaport. It saw the construction of a high-speed rail line from Seoul, an aquarium and a concert/event space all of which are now open to the public. While the infrastructure are public projects, the fair itself was paid by ticket sales, sponsorships, merchandise, donations and the int’l community for the pavilion development. Moving forward, a similar business model could be structured.

    Expo 2015 will open in less then eight months in Milan Italy with the theme Feeding the Planet – Energy for Life. If you can make the trip you can see for yourself what this effort is about. Lots of information on the net about world’s fairs. Look it up.

    Somehow legacy facts of a world’s fair seem to get lost in the economic feasibility discussions. There are many examples including several from the 1984 world’s fair in New Orleans that present a different overall economic result.

    I hope you take time to inform yourself about world fairs and are willing to engage and post as informed discussions.

  4. Submitted by Steven Bailey on 09/24/2014 - 08:29 am.

    World’s Fair, really?

    “Well, sir, there’s nothin’ on earth like a genuine bona-fide electrified six-car monorail! What’d I say?”

  5. Submitted by David Broden on 09/24/2014 - 11:24 am.

    Promoting vs. Real Benefits for Citizens

    This discussion is about the role of government and/or the role of public/private partnerships for good public policy. First objective must be to provided sevices needed for all citizens in the most beneficial manner. That means connecting to each individual citizen with education, health care, infrastructure and public safety and enabling a competive business climate to evolve jobs for all workers. A worlds fair will create construction jobs short term, and low paying job at the fair. The former creates long term and middle income jobs plus the professional jobs. If all we do is entertainment and promote then we are not the productive state we all strive to be. I repeat that this worlds fair idea is a very serious misdirection of effort for some likely personal gains not for all of MN.

    Dave Broden

  6. Submitted by Steve Heckler on 09/24/2014 - 04:36 pm.

    The Monorail – a Disney legacy

    Since 1959 many large theme parks and world’s fairs have a form of the monorail thanks to Disney. The monorail built for the 1962 Seattle fair was done so to connect the parking lots and transportation hubs to the fair grounds, which at the time was mostly undeveloped land. While the Space Needle was never publicly funded, the monorail, which is City owned, is contracted and run by a private company with no tax support. Both bring in millions each month in tourist revenue and have done so for 50 years. Not clear on the downside of a successful legacy or how the impact on all employment sectors could be seen as a negative. There are many examples of unsuccessful legacies that need discussion.

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