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Can a French port on the Mediterranean aspire to Seattle-like success?

Marseille's old port, the Vieux Port, at sunset. Credit: Ronald Holden

Fifty years ago, the World's Fair turned a spotlight on Seattle, back then a modest but ambitious city on North America's Pacific Coast with a lot of unrealized potential. There's a long history of cities that take advantage international exhibitions, fairs, and sporting events to bump themselves up a notch or two, but their legacy has rarely been as lasting as Seattle's.

Marseille, the gritty industrial port in the south of France, is the most recent example of a grandiose designation (as a 2013 European Capital of Culture), but with less than 60 days until the grand opening it's far from certain that the local organizers can pull it off.

I visited Marseille early this month as a guest of the regional tourism board for a progress report, but there was little to update from the rough program outline they showed a meeting of international tour operators in November 2011. The schedule still looks like the whiteboard of an overnight brainstorming session, full of tried-and-true shows (circuses), museums (the Impressionists), and treasure hunts in the rocky Provençal countryside, overlaid with dozens of zany notions (wild horses in downtown Marseille, ballet on the beach with construction machinery).

Before going further, a bit of background. Once a year, the European Union designates one or two cities as Capitals of Culture. In 2011 it was Talinn (Estonia) and Turku (Finland). The concept was hatched three decades ago by two glamorous and popular personalities in the world of art who both happened to be the Ministers of Culture in their home countries, the Frenchman Jack Lang and the Greek actress Melina Mercouri. The first city named was, not surprisingly, Athens, the second Florence, the third Paris.

Since then, the nod has gone mostly to second-tier cities like Liverpool, Oporto, and Talinn (to name three most people have even heard of), the theory being that Europe has more than enough "culture" in the traditional capitals already, but people tend to overlook the riches in their own backyards, and or else blissfully ignore what's beyond their borders.

Just think of what Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum did for the grimy port of Bilbao when the city fathers moved the rundown, downtown industrial zone into the suburbs and transformed the shipyards into a cultural neighborhood: a huge increase in tourism, not to mention international respsect.

Just think, too, of the world's fairs and expos around the globe, how they've turned the spotlight on cities like, ahem, Seattle, and left them not only with buildings (like the Space Needle) but also a new sense of civic cohesion.

The EU, for its part, is genrously doling out its favors for a year's worth of cultural identity. Next year, with it the turn of Provence and its largest metropolis, Marseille, there's been a budget of 850 million euros for the architectural projects alone, not to mention another 200 million euros of private-sector investment in new hotels.

There was an early, complicated website, Marseille-Provence 2013, now gone, and an ambitious performance calendar for the region: 500 events, 100 exhibitions, 20 new buildings by leading architects. On the waterfront north of the city, there's already a glamorous, 33-story tower that looks like a giant blue sail. It's the headquarters of the global freight conglomerate CMA CGM, the third-largest shipping-container company in the world.

Alas, there seems no urgency to get even the simplest of the MP 2013 projects, like the waterfront plaza, ready in time. "But we're working six days a week!" said its marketing and tourism director, Hugues de Cibon, without a trace of irony. Meantime, the "official website," is a placeholder, the project's social media are an embarrassment, and the newly revised logo looks like a joke.

The plan is for MP 2013 to open with a bang, literally. They're calling it La Grande Clameur,  the great clamor. At sunset, on Saturday, Jan. 12, boats in the harbor will begin sounding their horns, then a wave of sound emanating from everything from foghorns and city sirens to church bells and the general public will waft over Marseille and into the bay into the small hours of the morning (you can sign up online to participate) accompanied by street theatre, music, and fireworks.

The famous sunrise fish market on the Quai des Belges at the foot of the Vieux Port has temporarily moved around the corner to the Quai du Port while the entire plaza is turned into a 30-acre park designed by British architect Norman Foster. It's supposed to be ready by Jan. 12, but for the moment it's a pile of rubble. Almost every public works project, in fact, looks like a war zone. The organizers, with a bit of self-awareness, have put up billboards around town that say, "Museum in June? All I see is construction."

If this all sounds a bit like a grab-bag of wishful thinking, you wouldn't be alone. It's way behind schedule, but that's par for the course in grand projects. The fee schedule for individual events wasn't finalized unitl mid-year. At one point, the guiding muse for the entire year was supposed to be the writer Albert Camus; now, even that anchor concept is under review.

France is the most popular country in the world for international tourists, with over 75 million visitors a year. Provence, the Alps, and the Riviera are already the most popular destinations outside of Paris, so, one wonders, why does Marseille even bother?

Well, Marseille is no stranger to adversity or to the condescension of French intellectuals who underestimate the ability of people in the south of France to get things done, even if it all comes together only at the last minute. In that respect, it's kind of like Italy.

And if it takes an international shot in the arm to get things going, so be it. "Cultural Capital of Europe" has a nice ring to it, a real appeal to the bickering political parties and business interests in Provence. In that respect, it's kind of like "World's Fair" would have sounded in Seattle some 50 years ago.

Will they pull it off? Will anybody show up? Anybody who wasn't heading to Provence anyway? Will it have a lasting impact beyond 2013? Is it anything more than grandiose self-promotion? If you start asking questions like that, you won't even get started.

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