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?
MR: 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  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.