With controversy swirling about China and the upcoming Olympics — and some questioning whether the U.S. should even participate in the games — the U.S. State Department has finally taken action on yet another global extravaganza, the 2010 world's fair in Shanghai. Last week, after many delays, the government gave notice of official support to a non-profit group, Shanghai Expo 2010, to proceed with raising private funds to design, build, and operate a U.S. pavilion for the exposition.
For expo fans and China hands, the decision comes as a relief. Nearly a year and a half ago, the State Department requested bids on the pavilion project from private groups — by law, the U.S. government cannot pay for world's fair pavilions with federal funds. But that process went precisely nowhere. All bidders were rejected. One of the more promising was the BH&L Group, which has a number of Northwest ties, including advisors like China expert Sydney Rittenberg, futurist Glenn Hiemstra, and tech guru Mark Anderson. But in the end, State decided none of the bidders had workable funding plans. As a result, the U.S. was left with no pavilion plan, no money, and precious time lost.
It was looking like the U.S. was about to suffer the international embarrassment of not showing up for what many regard as the new China's coming out party. Expo 2010 will be the largest world's fair ever held, with 70 million visitors expected and more than 170 nations participating. The U.S. had pledged to be one of them, but that was starting to seem unlikely.
But this month, the State Department signed a letter of intent with a new group headed by Nick Winslow, former head of Warner Brothers International Recreation Enterprises, and Ellen R. Eliasoph, attorney with the Washington, D.C. white shoe law firm of Covington & Burling.
Both have strong ties with China and the entertainment business. Winslow, president of the new group, previously worked for Warner Brothers in China while looking to build overseas theme parks. Eliasoph is the former head of Warner Brothers Pictures' China division. She is also opening an office there for Covington & Burling, Winslow says. In addition, Winslow is a longtime consultant in the amusements and expo field. He's worked on five expos during the course of a long career, including fairs in Spokane '74, Knoxville '82, New Orleans '84, Vancouver '86 and Brisbane '88.
Winslow says his group's first order of business is to secure sponsors and funding. The budget for the project he says is somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 million. Winslow says they've already received an important financial commitment from a "founding" sponsor who is underwriting the initial phase of the pavilion design and planning. He wouldn't reveal their name, but he did say it was a U.S. company. Winslow says his group has already held a design charrette in Southern California and is moving ahead with a concept which he would not describe prior to making presentations in Washington, D.C. this week. However, he did say that "sustainability, sports and health" would be major pavilion themes.
One advantage the group has is the Covington & Burling connection. While the firm isn't officially part of the expo group, some of its attorneys and clients could be a boost. Also associated with the firm is former National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue who, according to Winslow, is "very much involved" in the pavilion project.
Covington & Burling's client list also reads like a roster of the kinds of companies that could be potential pavilion sponsors. They include Microsoft, Bank of America, Eastman Kodak, Eli Lilly, Harley-Davidson, even the notorious Halliburton. (Before you get too ruffled, Covington & Burling has also done award-winning pro bono work for Guantanamo detainees.) At the last world's fair in Aichi, Japan in 2005, the U.S. pavilion was sponsored by major companies such as Boeing, General Motors, and firms connected to hometown automaker Toyota. The Shanghai pavilion group will seek corporate support and help from U.S. states and cities. Winslow says their target list includes Washington, California, Nevada, Hawaii, San Francisco (Shanghai's U.S. sister city) and Atlanta.
Another advantage, if you want to call it that, is the short time frame. Two years is a tight time schedule. At an expo the size and scale of Shanghai's, national participants like the U.S. are expected to hire major architects to design innovative, one-of-a-kind facilities that will dazzle and amaze. But, according to Winslow, both the U.S. and China want the U.S at the fair. Winslow says that Prof. Zhou Hanmin, the deputy head of the Shanghai expo, has said, "We would consider the expo a failure if the U.S. did not participate." An element of desperation could only help at this point.
Judith Rubin, a former staffer of World's Fair magazine and an "independent editor/publicist" who tracks the international attractions industry on her blog, is hopeful about the Winslow group. "I don't think it is too late to make a great U.S. pavilion. I also believe that Nick Winslow's group is well qualified all around and likely to be able to pull it off in both design and business terms."
Still, they might have a tough sell. The U.S. is slipping into a recession and recent decades have seen a decline in American participation in expos. What were once major U.S. corporations operating globally are now multinational companies that often prefer to funnel sponsorship funding through local affiliates — appearing as an American company is not always a plus. In addition, no one wants to be associated with something half-baked. Poor pavilions, such as the U.S. one in Seville, Spain in 1992, can prove embarrassing to both sponsors and the country. The heavy reliance of private funds can turn pavilions into giant sponsorship ads.
But, as with everything in China, the scale of this event seems too tempting to pass up. With 70 million visitors — most of them Chinese — the expo will be a unique opportunity to reach a massive market at an event designed to expand global awareness. Many foreign pavilions are designed as places where corporate clients can be entertained and deals made behind the scenes while the crowds are entertained at the IMAX theater next door. The VIP lounge of the U.S. pavilion in Aichi was built to evoke the feel of the ranch in Crawford, Texas where America was "open for bidness." While wheelers and dealers got to know each other, the Japanese public enjoyed a multimedia film about Ben Franklin — hopelessly corny (they had Old Ben doing hip hop moves!) but popular with the locals.
That serves as a reminder that despite the last-minute scrambling, it's important that the U.S. succeed at something more than simply showing up. Many nations have been working on their pavilions for years, with the financial support of their governments. The U.S. risks being out-classed. Given the fact that the U.S. has withdrawn from the Bureau of International Expositions(BIE), the international governing body of expos, and was a no-show at the major expo in Hanover, Germany in 2000 and won't have a pavilion at this summer's fair in Zaragoza, Spain, the rest of the world should be used to the idea that America is at best ambivalent and at worst arrogant and incompetent when it comes to participating in modern expositions.
Instead of lowering the bar lower for the U.S.A., however, recent history has raised it. Before we can begin to impress the world in Shanghai, we'll have to convince them that we care. On top of that, the pavilion will need a message that's fresh and relevant, not to mention popular with the masses. The U.S. Shanghai Pavilion has a lot to prove and little time in which to prove it.
RELATED EXPO NOTES: The Seattle Times may be laying off reporters, but thank goodness they've still got staff to cover the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition (AYPE) Centennial beat. Last year, I wrote about the project, which was being pushed by the late Walt Crowley and his HistoryLink.org, the Museum of History and Industry, and others. This year, it received funding from the city of Seattle. A number of exhibits, research, and publication projects are planned and will culminate in a region-wide series of activities and events centered on the 100th anniversary of Seattle's first world's fair. Nancy Bartley has written two stories in April: An overview of the centennial project and a piece about an interesting AYPE radio broadcast project that's received funding from King County's 4Culture.
The AYPE Centennial brings to mind that many world's fairs have left enduring legacies in the cities that hosted them, from the Eiffel Tower to the Space Needle. In Seattle, our two fairs have reshaped the city in important ways: AYPE gave us the layout of the University of Washington campus, and the 1962 Century 21 Exposition gave us Seattle Center and immortalized us in an Elvis movie. Events celebrating the anniversaries of world's fairs are not at all uncommon and can be occasions to revisit how cities are shaped by events that combine commerce, politics, engineering, culture, tourism, architecture and urban planning, history, and carnival rides the way world's fairs do.
It's useful enough that the BIE has an organization of former expo host cities and regions, called AVE, that meets to promote international cooperation and discuss how cities can be shaped (and presumably improved) by fairs and in the years that follow. Seattle, for some reason, has never joined AVE, despite written appeals to mayor Greg Nickels from the BIE. I was a BIE guest at a conference in 2005 in Japan, and they were baffled at Seattle's lack of interest and participation. I couldn't explain it. The city's name is still not on the membership list.
It's a shame because the experience of cities such as Seville, Brussels, Osaka, Montreal, even Shanghai could be very useful as Seattle develops plans for the future reshaping of Seattle Center. Other cities have gone through this long-term legacy leveraging process and may have good ideas for us. And as fairs have turned increasingly to green themes like sustainability, water conservation and urban living, discussion is centering around topics near and dear to Seattle's green heart. Expos are laboratories for the future of city-building, and Seattle has a lot to learn and teach in this regard. The next meeting of AVE will be on Sept. 12, 2008 in Zaragoza, Spain, just a few days before this summer's expo there closes down. A good time for a junket, Mr. Mayor?