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Is the World’s Fair Coming to Minnesota?

Ask people in the United States about the World’s Fair and they will conjure up a variety of images. These days, for a large percent of the population, most of these associations are thanks more to pop culture (think Devil in the White City, The Simpsons or Men in Black) than personal experience. In fact, quite a few Americans seem surprised by the idea that World’s Fairs still exist.

Not only is the concept of a World’s Fair alive and well, but one could soon be taking place in our own backyard of Bloomington, MN. A group of enthusiastic Minnesotans, led by former Minnesota Secretary of State and current President of Global Minnesota Mark Ritchie, are working on a bid to host Expo 2027 here in our home state. While there is nothing official, things have progressed enough that it’s time for the startup and innovation community to start paying attention and figuring out where exactly we fit in.

A Brief History Lesson

Before getting to what it looks like today, let’s revisit the history of the World’s Fair starting back in the 19th century.

The first World’s Fair was held in 1851 in London, England. These fairs, better known as International Expositions outside the US, continued intermittently for years. Many had themes—most of which were focused on new technologies of the day. Each hosting country set their own rules about each new fair. Different leaders tried to standardize rules to govern the event for years, but nothing formal occurred until on November 22, 1928, when 31 countries signed an agreement known as the 1928 Paris Convention. That convention created the Bureau International des Expositions (otherwise known as the BIE). At the moment 170 countries are members of the BIE and follow its rules.

Membership in the BIE is actually one of the reasons there has not been a World’s Fair of any type in the US in more than 35 years. The US let its membership officially lapse in 2001 and only rejoined in 2017 (thanks to efforts by the MN Expo team).

That means the last “full” World’s Fair in the US occurred more than 55 years ago, with the last US-based Specialized Expo (more on that in a minute) occurring in New Orleans in 1984.

It’s the memories of one of these events (the 1964 New York World’s Fair) that proved key to getting Ritchie onboard for the bid to bring an Expo to MN. A group of community members in St. Paul contacted Ritchie, who had announced he wasn’t going to run for a third term as Secretary of State.

“I remembered as a 12-year-old, my folks driving me and my brothers out to New York from our little home town out here on the prairie, and going to the ’64 World’s Fair in New York and being amazed at driverless cars and video phones. It took a while to get video phones in our pockets, but there they are, and driverless cars, we’re getting there. As a practical matter that was really important to me because it made me realize that there was a big future and that as a kid, if I got engaged and cracked my books, I could really make things happen in my life that would be part of this incredible future that I got to see.”

As Ritchie spoke with the group recruiting him, he was compelled by the fact that today’s American kids would not have the same sort of experience that had resonated so strongly with him. He decided to sign on and became the leader of Minnesota’s first bid in 2023. While it’s obvious that Minnesota did not win the bid for Expo 2023, Ritchie thinks that in the long run, it will have played an important role in the bid for 2027.

Getting Specialized: The Minnesota Theme

Before we get to what the Minnesota Expo could actually look like, there’s an important point of clarification to make: there are actually two types of World’s Fairs: the major one that occurs every five years and lasts for six months; and a more Specialized Expo that happens in years ending in -3 or -7. These Specialized Expos are only three months long and are done on a smaller physical scale than the massive 1000 acre World’s Fairs like the one happening in Dubai next year, and have a theme.  This is the type of Expo that Minnesota is attempting to host. The most recent Specialized Expo was held in 2017 in Astana, the capital city of the Republic of Kazakhstan under the theme Future Energy. Next up is Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2023 with the theme “Creative Industries in Digital Convergence.”

When it came to selecting the theme for Minnesota’s expo bid, the group behind the effort went for a subject that the state is known for: Health.

The official theme for the bid is “Healthy People, Healthy Planet: Wellness and Well-Being for All.” Ritchie agrees that Minnesota was well placed to take on a specialized expo. He says, “I’ve been very happy about our choice of the size, the theme, and the general opportunity that’s been presented to us to take our message to the whole world. When we meet with a foreign minister or head of state or somebody else and we say that our theme is really focused on health and wellness. They respond incredibly quickly and positively, and say that is very important to us. That’s a universal theme.”

An ideal theme isn’t the only reason that MN has chosen to go after a Specialized Expo instead. The size of a Specialized Expo is limited to roughly 62 acres, a better size for our metropolitan area.  Ritchie also cites our weather as an additional practical reason as to why a three-month Specialized Expo is the right fit for the state: “When you talk about Minnesota many people have an awareness of us through the weather channel, and in fact any six-month period you might pick might have blizzards on both ends.”

What would this actually look like?

If awarded, Expo 2027 would occur predominantly in Bloomington’s South Loop District. “The city of Bloomington, the port authority, had very interesting idea of a perfect site that would be on light rail near the airport, which is very important for heads of state and other people who have motorcades,” Ritchie says. He agrees that one advantage of this new location is that nothing would have to be removed or majorly displaced. He explains, “It’s a big farm, and it’s a big flat asphalt parking lot.”

Ritchie spoke of how important the different aspects of Bloomington have turned out to be in terms of selling the bid.

“It’s been a great benefit to have a very highly motivated, organized, well run, city administration, with a well-run mall administration, a well-run airport administration, with a national wildlife refuge and Fort Snelling’s history. You know, it has all of the pieces.” Ritchie highlights the airport in particular as being a unique selling point for the MN bid.”

According to Expo 2027’s federal application: “The Expo site development will primarily rely upon temporary structures to accommodate the 93-day event. Upon the successful BIE vote to host the Expo, the local community may decide to construct permanent facilities that will be re-purposed following the Expo. In addition, local developers will add to the existing long-term inventory of hotels and multi-family residential units that will be used temporarily for Expo village and Expo visitors.”

While it may be the smaller type of Expo event, a Specialized Expo would still yield some fairly large numbers for Minnesota when it comes to financial and visitor impact.  As part of their official application process, the Minnesota Expo team hired Rockport Analytics, the same company that conducted studies on the economic impact of both the 2018 Super Bowl and the 2019 Men’s Final Four. According to the Rockport Analytics analysis, Expo2027 is estimated to have the following impact:

  • 13.3 million in-person visitors over 93 days
  • Of the attendees, 10% will be local, 40% from surrounding region, 45% from other parts of nation, 5% global
  • Net (new) tourism revenue projected at $1.59 billion
  • Direct Tax receipts-local/MN $286 million

The Road Ahead

Before we get too excited, we should be reminded that Expo2027 isn’t a foregone conclusion just yet. It’s Minnesota’s second bid (2023), something that Ritchie says actually plays in our favor. The first bid got a huge issue out of the way—it got the US to officially rejoin the BIE after 16 years away. Plus, it provided tremendous experience and insight for the MN bid team and, as Ritchie pointed out, no one gets it the first time.

The first step is to get federal funding to take an American Pavilion to the Dubai World Expo, thus paving the way for the American cities to bid for future expos.  

“World expos are an opportunity to strengthen our international relationships and showcase American innovation on the world stage,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) who authored the bill that recently passed the House of Representatives to start the process. “I thank the City of Bloomington and my fellow Minnesotans in Congress for coming together to restore our historic leadership role and bring commerce and ideas right to our doorstep.”

In addition to Phillips, the bill was supported by Minnesota’s Representatives from both parties in the House and has now entered the Senate for approval before going to the President for final approval. You can follow the bill’s progress here.

The actual BIE General Assembly Vote is scheduled for Fall 2022, but Ritchie and team are active now in order to secure the American Pavilion at Dubai 2020 as well as Presidential Recognition of the Bid.

“Basically, the domestic side is in good shape, and we’re turning our attention to the 169 countries who vote. We don’t just want their vote, we want them to enthusiastically come to Minnesota, both beforehand to check us out and to make their plans for the summer of 2027”

Once they are selected for the event, Ritchie’s group would start with the more fundamental aspects of planning—design and plan development, site preparation, and exhibit and pavilion construction.

The Startup Ecosystem + The World’s Fair

To Ritchie, one of the biggest impacts of the potential benefits of hosting Expo 2027 would be cementing Minnesota’s reputation as an innovation leader. As numerous groups and communities work to put Minnesota’s startup and innovation identity on the national stage, it’s worth asking could a Specialized World’s Fair move those attempts forward?

Ritchie also points out a World’s Fair draws a unique set of people to town, giving startups the opportunity to interact and find potential partners and customers. “The World’s Fair speaks to and attracts future-minded, global-minded innovation, transformation-minded, welcoming-minded. You have very special people attracted initially to the idea of a World’s Fair.”

A Specialized Expo could also solve the problem of getting people to our state in order so they can fall in love with the Minnesota scene. As Ritchie says, “You have to do things to bring people here. But as the joke goes, once they come, you can’t get rid of them.”

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