Can hosting big events — say a Specialized Expo, a slimmed-down version of a World's Fair — provide a fruitful boost to a state's reputation?
Minnesota once had a governor who fervently believed the answer is yes. As a result of Gov. Rudy Perpich's inspiration and a lot of volunteer exertion, this year and next bring the 30th anniversaries of a spate of high-profile events — a Super Bowl, a U.S. Open golf tournament, the NCAA Final Four.
(Yes, there were Stanley Cup finals and a World Series played in Minnesota in 1991, too. But Perpich can't take credit for the successes of the hometown hockey and baseball teams that year. In fact, he once confided that he didn't much like baseball, or at least its World Series. "It cuts down on your crowds" at campaign rallies, he grumbled.)
I've never found a scholarly analysis that documents it. But my hunch is that hosting those events helped Minnesota thrive in the ensuing years. They gave this middle-of-the-continent place far-reaching publicity and a distinct identity that helped attract talent and investment, both crucial to 21st-century prosperity.
That's why I cheered word that a bunch of like-minded Minnesotans are trying again to win a Specialized Expo for this state — specifically for Bloomington, on a site just east and south of the Mall of America. It's the group's second such attempt. This time, they're so far ahead of the competition that no other contender for Expo 2027 has yet surfaced at the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), which will choose the 2027 site in late 2022.
After the blows of the last 18 months, Minnesota could use some reputational repair. And if Dr. Perpich were still with us, I think he'd prescribe just what the expo advocates have in mind: Three months of visits by a projected 150,000 people per day from all over the world (plus legions more online), learning about this state and its leading industry, embodied in the theme "Healthy People, Healthy Planet" (see minnesotausaexpo.com).
That's the same theme the Minnesotans took to the BIE in 2017, only to come in second to Buenos Aires. Mark Ritchie, the former Minnesota secretary of state who spearheaded that effort, said his team was urged then to make a second try.
What's different this time? The United States is back in BIE's good graces, for one thing. Thanks to bipartisan work by Minnesota's congressional delegation, the U.S. rejoined the BIE in 2017, 16 years after its membership had lapsed.
It's also arguably the Americans' turn. No World's Fair has been in the United States since 1984.
Ritchie, now president of the nonprofit group Global Minnesota and again leading Minnesota's Expo bid, said something bigger is also working in Minnesota's favor: the COVID pandemic.
"Our bid was focused on health and wellness long before the pandemic hit," Ritchie told me. "Now we look like geniuses. Everyone sees that we need to talk about the health issue as a whole planet."
Minnesota's claim to have something to say to the world about health and wellness is well-founded. This is the home of world-famous clinical care, pioneering medical device makers, groundbreaking medical research, the nation's biggest health insurance provider, renowned treatment for addiction and torture, and a lifestyle that prizes healthful food and recreation. The state has a decent record for handling COVID, too.
Now is a fine time for Minnesotans to tout those distinctions. Now is when this state's stewards should be strategizing to reassert its brand as "the Healthy State" and push aside the ugly image of police brutality engendered by George Floyd's murder.
I'm not arguing that Minnesota can paper over systemic racism with the several thousand pages of an Expo proposal. The need to assure racial justice in law enforcement and other realms of this state's shared life is real, and the work required to make it so is urgent.
I'd submit, though, that the work will be enhanced if it can proceed in a context of optimism and opportunity. That's the backdrop that an expo can generate. Hosting an expo would allow Minnesotans to tell others — and remind themselves — that this state has many assets that can be used to forge a brighter future for everyone.
It would also convey that Minnesotans are welcoming, future-focused, globally minded people, respectful of differences and eager to exchange ideas. A person with a long memory might call it "the Brainpower State."
Last year while Minnesota was still reeling from Floyd's death, I was grieved to be asked by a favorite professor at my Iowa alma mater, Coe College, "What on earth has happened to Minnesota? I always thought it was such a good place to live."
Land the 2027 Expo, and Minnesota can show him and the world that it still is.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.