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No fair: U.S. skips Expo 2000

By Gordon Linden and Paul Creighton

Ask older people in the United States about world's fairs, and they'll wax nostalgic about New York's big events of 1939 and 1964, or tell you about the Seattle Space Needle, a legacy of the 1962 Century 21 World's Fair. What most Americans don't know is that the 149-year-old, once-proud tradition of U.S. participation in these world-class events is about to end -- without even a whimper.

The United States has participated in every world's fair since London's Crystal Palace housed the Great Exhibition of 1851. But when Expo 2000 opens its gates to the world on June 1 in Hannover, Germany, there will be no U.S. pavilion or other official U.S. presence.

A closed public purse

"A joint statement by U.S. Ambassador John C. Kornblum and Expo 2000 Commissioner General Birgit Breuel blamed tightwad U.S. public policy: From the very beginning, the American pavilion had to be organized, financed and operated by private means. Federal financial support was never a possibility. . . . (Under a 1994 federal law), the U.S. government may not use any budgetary money for a U.S. pavilion or other major exhibitions."

For many countries, international pavilions at world's fairs depend on a mixture of public and private contributions. The U.S. commissioner general for Hannover 2000, William D. Rollnick, chairman of Mattel Inc., gave it his best shot. He even put up his own seed money. But without at least a token amount of support indicating that the U.S. government had a stake in the matter, it was a hard sell.

The U.S. presence at overseas expos has been troubled for several years. Congress initially denied funding for a U.S. pavilion at Seville Expo 92. It eventually did put up a pavilion, but so late that the original creative designs had to be scrapped. The exhibit was housed in two used geodesic domes the U.S. Information Agency had on hand in Austria.

Ho-hum toward home-grown fairs.

The American government has even less enthusiasm for hosting expos at home. There hasn't been a world's fair on U.S. soil since the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans.

World's fairs are a proven engine of metropolitan development. Even those that are failures in the short term, such as the New Orleans fair, usually leave a valuable legacy and infrastructure that pay for the fair many times over in the long term. But recent efforts to mount expos in such cities as San Francisco, San Antonio, Miami and St. Louis have run out of steam, partly because of the chilly atmosphere emanating from Washington: Without a federal blessing, a city can't get approval from the Bureau of International Expositions, the body that sanctions world's fairs.

This country needs to get behind expos again. About 200 nations will participate at Hannover, which is being held on the grounds of one of the largest international trade fairs in the world. Many of those participants are newly independent countries seeking to be a part of the international community. A meaningful U.S. presence there would have had unquestionable symbolic, diplomatic and commercial value.

There are always long lines at a U.S. expo pavilion. People want to know what Americans are up to and what makes the USA a great country. But this time around, the window to the United States will be shuttered, and the opportunity to create international goodwill lost.

The Cyclebowl Pavilion: an innovative environmental theme draws large crowds at Hannover 2000