Minnesota World's Fair? Backers press for dollars, help

Worlds Fair
Volunteers watch the fireworks during the opening ceremony of the Expo in Shanghai, China, April, 30, 2010. The World's Fair in Shanghai was the largest ever.
Michel Euler, Pool/AP 2010

Twin Cities business and political leaders are trying to drum up support — and cash — to bring a World's Fair to Minnesota in 2023.

Backers of the bid say a World's Fair would put Minnesota on a global stage and bring in millions of tourists and their money.

Some big hurdles remain. Congress won't pay the $25,000 in annual dues to the Bureau of International Exhibitions, the Paris-based group that sanctions the World's Fair, making it harder to get approval for events in the United States. Also, the last U.S. World's Fair, New Orleans in 1984, failed to draw the hoped-for crowds and ended in bankruptcy.

Twin Cities fair promoters, though, remain undeterred. They're pushing to raise as much as $2 million to make the formal bid by the end of next year.

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A World's Fair would be "a way for Minnesota to both welcome the world to come visit and find out who we are, and for us to learn from and be part of and see others from all over the planet," said outgoing Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, who is leading the effort along with former Carlson Companies CEO Marilyn Carlson Nelson and former Vice President Walter Mondale as honorary co-chairs.

NY World's Fair
Visitors attend the New York World's Fair on the first Sunday the fair is open to the public in Flushing, Queens on April 26, 1964. The fair's symbol, the Unisphere, is at left.

Ritchie said he doesn't yet have a cost estimate for the event but that some sort of public-private partnership will be necessary. He's been touting the potential economic benefits and estimates as many as 15 million visitors would come, including up to 4 million from overseas. Visitors from abroad could spend $4 billion to $8 billion, he projected.

People should be wary of such estimates, however, said Heywood Sanders, a University of Texas at San Antonio professor who's studied what he says are the usually overblown economic predictions associated with conventions and other big events.

"An Olympics or a World's Fair is a kind of sugar high for a community," Sanders said. "You get a short term burst of international attention and media recognition, but that doesn't necessarily last very long."

This photo taken May 17, 2006, in Knoxville, Tenn., shows the Sunsphere located in World's Fair Park.
Elizabeth A. Davis/AP

If the 1982 (Knoxville, Tennessee) and 1984 fairs are any indication, most visitors to a 2023 expo in the Twin Cities will probably come from Minnesota and its neighboring states, he said.

Those visitors will spend money, and a World's Fair could bring a hyper-localized economic benefit to the area immediately surrounding the event site, Sanders added.

World's Fair backers, though, say the expo's impact goes beyond dollars and cents.

Alfred Heller, author of a book on the World's Fair who's been visiting the international expos since 1939, recalled his trip to Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China. It was the biggest fair ever.

"You can't get that on television," he said. "You have to feel it. You have to see it. You have to experience what they're trying to tell you."

The Bureau of International Exhibitions could decide on a 2023 World's Fair site by late 2016. So far, there are no other cities competing.