On Sunday, 70,000 Vikings fans, give or take a few, will cheer as their purple-clad heroes take the field for the first time at the region’s newest entertainment behemoth, U.S. Bank Stadium. Six miles away, more than twice that many Minnesotans will stroll, gawk and nosh their way around this state’s most durable draw, the State Fair.
That makes this a fine day for Minnesotans to think big — big events, big crowds, big venues, and big chances to make a name (and money) for this state.
So join me in imagining what could be done on 62 acres of undertapped potential just east of TCF Bank Stadium, near the Prospect Park Green Line station. That’s where a group of big thinkers envision staging World Expo 2023, the first international exposition on U.S. soil since the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans.
Consider: 150,000 visitors — about as many as will attend the State Fair each day this week — coming every day for three months to a spiffed-up zone of new and rehabbed buildings adjacent to the University of Minnesota. There, they’ll visit exhibits from upward of 100 countries and scores of companies to learn about cutting-edge developments in health and wellness, befitting the expo theme, “Wellness and Well-being for All: Healthy People, Healthy Planet.”
Visitors will spill over into related events on the university campus, at the State Fairgrounds and throughout the metro area — boosting tourism revenue in the Twin Cities alone that year by more than $920 million, according to an estimate by global marketing research firm Rockport Analytics. The rest of the state will benefit, too, as enterprising resort owners offer shuttle services to show the rest of the state to visitors from Shanghai, Melbourne or Timbuktu.
This is no idle summer daydream. It’s a real plan with solid backing from Minnesota corporate and civic luminaries. A bid to host the 2023 assembly authorized by the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) will soon be on its way to the U.S. secretary of commerce, who must give it her blessing before it goes to BIE next year to duke it out with the competition — Lodz, the third-largest city in Poland.
I’d like to report that Minnesota’s bid is a sure winner and advise you to prepare for an invasion of out-of-town guests between mid-May and mid-August in 2023. With a distinctive and timely proposed theme and a detailed site plan that takes smart advantage of existing infrastructure, how could Minnesota lose to Lodz?
“We’re close to success,” said Mark Ritchie, the former Minnesota DFL secretary of state who serves as president of the Minnesota World’s Fair Bid Committee.
There’s just one teensy potential problem: In addition to almost-assured support from Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Minnesota’s bid requires action by the U.S. Congress. This Congress. This year, before Dec. 15.
It speaks well of Ritchie’s can-do spirit that, knowing that fact, he hasn’t given up pursuit of a World Expo in favor of easier work — say, negotiating a special session of the Minnesota Legislature.
Under BIE rules, only member nations can host World’s Fairs and Expos. Courtesy of a fit of austerity in the 1998 Congress, the U.S. stopped paying annual dues — though the treaty that dictates the terms of U.S. membership was never revoked. All that’s needed to rejoin the Paris-based body is a letter from Secretary of State John Kerry and congressional authorization to start paying dues again. BIE membership will cost the U.S. a pittance — $30,000 a year.
Taxpayers aren’t even being asked to foot that bill. Expo USA, a nonprofit consortium of the four metro areas that want to bid on future fairs and expos — Houston, San Francisco, Philadelphia and the Twin Cities — is willing to pay the annual dues. All that’s being asked of Congress is a nod of approval.
A functional Congress would say a routine yes to Expo USA’s request, especially since it comes with considerable bipartisan backing. Minnesota’s two Democratic senators are pushing it along with Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn. In the U.S. House, Minnesota’s move is spearheaded by Republican Rep. Tom Emmer and Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum and backed by an array of Texas politicians who have visions of a Houston World’s Fair in their heads.
Alas, as Minnesotans have seen to their sorrow, these days, even routine lawmaking too often goes undone. (I’m looking at you, state legislators.)
To his credit, Ritchie chooses not to focus on the risk that a gridlocked Congress will dash Minnesota’s World Expo dream — though my guess is that he has a Plan B in a drawer somewhere if Congress lets him down. For now, he’s focused on the details of the plan that will be submitted later this week to the secretary of commerce. It represents two years of work by scores of people to take an idea initially perceived as far-fetched and make it not just feasible, but inspirational.
That puts Ritchie in a long line of Minnesota big thinkers, a line that includes the likes of John Pillsbury, Elmer Andersen and Rudy Perpich. Their big thinking helped build today’s Minnesota. Ritchie’s big thinking could help build tomorrow’s.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.