What is it with the U.S. and world's fairs? I've documented the troubled efforts to create a pavilion for the next big world exposition in Shanghai, China, in 2010. It promises to be the largest world's fair in history, with some 200 nations participating and 70 million visitors expected. But the world's most powerful nation — and a major force in international expositions during two centuries — has faltered, and now a U.S. pavilion may be too late.
In late October, the politically well-connected group sanctioned by the U.S. State Department to pull together financing for an estimated $80 million expo pavilion abruptly gave up the effort. Fair veteran Nick Winslow sent an e-mail saying the group he led, with ties to Washington, D.C., power law firm Covington & Burling, had run out of money and time, and he criticized current U.S. policy that makes expo pavilion sponsorship next to impossible. Unlike most countries, the U.S. government is prohibited from financing national expo pavilions. As a result, they must be funded with corporate, private, or non-federal funds (from state governments, for example). But pavilion boosters face a catch-22: They cannot get real private support without government sanction, yet they cannot get government sanction without some assurance of private support.
Even with those difficult conditions, groups bid to get the rights to pull together a pavilion. Last spring, after months of reviewing proposals, the State Department rejected all bids, including one by the single strongest bidder, the BH&L Group, a partnership of well-respected exposition veterans determined to get a pavilion off the ground. BH&L has Pacific Northwest ties, with a group of advisors that included tech and expo consultants, futurists, and old China hands from the region. The problem was, precious time for fundraising and pavilion design was wasted. Starting from scratch, the State Department anointed the Winslow group, gambling they could pull off a coup. But after months of futility, their Shanghai effort has crashed and burned.
It was hard enough to get things going in last year's economy; the current economic crisis makes the pavilion effort an even bigger and now unlikely long-shot. The feds can't spend money (even if they had it), most U.S. states are facing budget deficits, Wall Street has tanked, and many companies are cutting back or begging for bailouts.
The BH&L principals, however, are eager to jump back into the fray and give a last Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland shot at pulling off a pavilion. Barry Howard, BH&L's driving force, issued a statement laying out the steps needed to prevent the U.S. from a major international embarrassment. "We need," he wrote, "a CEO with a love of country, the imagination to collaborate in a cutting edge creative adventure, and the courage to underwrite the initial costs" of getting it off the ground. A BH&L press release from Dec. 9 lays out the challenges. The group also has a new website on their pavilion hopes up and running.
Howard envisions a pavilion in keeping with the expo's theme of "Better Cities, Better Life," a facility that will use cutting-edge environmental and communication technologies to show how we can fulfill the American ideal of inclusiveness and sustainability. The Shanghai expo is seen as an unprecedented opportunity to reach the emerging Chinese market with something more than a straight product sales pitch.
While the economic climate has changed for the worse in the last two years and time is running out, there is, as one could predict, hope in the new Obama administration. BH&L has sent out feelers to Obama-connected and Congressional contacts; the State Department is about to come under new management with incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose husband is a well-known international fundraiser. The Clintons surely get the importance of expos. Tony Coelho, a friend of Bill Clinton, was commissioner general at Expo '98 in Lisbon (though, as many things "Clinton," not without controversy).
Another thing to watch is what happens to the planned participation of General Motors in Shanghai, where they are slated as co-sponsors of a pavilion with the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp Group. GM is currently looking for $18 billion in loans from Congress to save it from bankruptcy. If Congress was enraged by the image of auto execs flying in corporate jets, how will they feel about them indirectly funding an expo exhibit?
GM has a long and storied history of expo participation. The company was a strong presence at U.S. Depression-era world's fairs, including Chicago (1933) and New York (1939), and since, including Seattle's Century 21 Exposition (1962), where they showed off the "car of the future," a gull-winged Batmobile-style Firebird III. They were also at the environmentally themed Expo '74 in Spokane, where they featured fuel efficiency and lower-emissions technology. If only they hadn't been sidetracked by the Hummer!
While tricky, perhaps a bailout package could offer a way for GM and the U.S. government to join forces in a combined effort that would be a win-win-win for all involved: The U.S. gets a pavilion partially funded by GM with U.S. backed loans--the kind of seed money the BH&L Group and State Department need to get the project off the ground. And those loans are made possible by federal borrowing from China, which funds the U.S. debt. The new administration avoids the international humiliation of blowing-off China during its global coming-out party. Do we really want to infuriate our biggest banker? Plus the expo involvement reaffirms Obama's message of renewed engagement with the international community.
Another thing to contemplate is the benefit of avoiding expo ignominy. In trying to reassure everyone that their exposition is on track, the Chinese poster child for stability is Iceland, a country in the middle of an unprecedented economic meltdown. They have just reaffirmed to the Chinese their commitment to be at Expo 2010. Where will American confidence be if we can't match Iceland?
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