WASHINGTON – Minnesota may still get the World's Fair it's been chasing for years, but hopes for a 2027 World Expo in Bloomington depend on Congress settling a simmering federal budget stalemate by the end of the year.
Minnesota's entire congressional delegation and the Trump administration have lined up behind legislation by U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips that would allow the State Department to build a U.S. pavilion at the 2020 World Expo in Dubai. That's seen as a necessary prerequisite for the Minnesota host committee to mount a 2027 bid.
"This would be a massive success for Bloomington to host an international fair," said Phillips, a Democrat whose congressional district includes the city. "This would be a huge economic impact for Minnesota."
World Expos have been more commonly known in the U.S. as World's Fairs. The first was in London in 1851, and ensuing fairs and expos saw the debut of products including the telephone, dishwasher, color television and ice cream, and architectural landmarks like the first Ferris wheel, the Eiffel Tower and Seattle's Space Needle.
The Dubai expo runs from October to April 2021. Soon after the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) will decide a 2027 site.
"If we're going to have our bid taken seriously, then we need a U.S. pavilion in Dubai and somewhere within that pavilion there will be the Minnesota bid room," said Mark Ritchie, the former Minnesota secretary of state who is spearheading the Minnesota effort. "You market yourself, your state, your city, your region and your theme."
The obstacle is a federal law, dating to the late 1990s, that prohibits taxpayer dollars from being spent to build a U.S. pavilion at a World Expo. Since then U.S. participation has been more sporadic and dependent on private donations. There's been no visible effort this year to line up private backing.
Phillips' bill, which the House passed unanimously in late October, would lift the prohibition on federal funding. The U.S. State Department backs the effort, and says it needs $60 million to build a pavilion in Dubai.
"There is simply too much at stake for the United States to fail to participate in Expo 2020," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in a Nov. 8 letter to U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. "In the absence of the United States, global rivals would tell our story for us, ultimately damaging our reputation, disappointing our allies, and emboldening our adversaries."
Pompeo wrote that lack of a U.S. presence in Dubai "would also undercut the U.S. bid to host either Expo 2027 or 2030."
Several congressional aides pushing Phillips' legislation said the State Department has made clear it needs the prohibition lifted by the end of December to get going on a Dubai pavilion. That's where the effort gets caught up in the tricky congressional budget process.
Backers were unsuccessful in getting the $60 million appropriation included in a one-month federal budget extension that President Donald Trump signed on Thursday.
Now the goal is to get it in a broader budget deal next month. But those negotiations could get contentious given the current impeachment proceedings and Trump's insistence on more money for a Mexico border wall. The prospect of another Christmastime federal government shutdown looms.
"The December continuing resolution is our hope," said Phillips, referring to a stopgap funding measure.
The U.S. Senate has yet to pass legislation lifting the federal prohibition, but Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has been working to move it quickly through. Phillips said the entire Minnesota delegation is on board, with Rep. Betty McCollum using her position on the Appropriations Committee to help get the funding lined up.
Minnesota U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, a top Republican in Congress, sponsored a previous bill. Signed by Trump in 2017, it allowed the U.S. to rejoin the BIE — also seen as necessary to a U.S. host bid.
After the Emmer bill passed, the Minnesota group vied to make Bloomington the host of the 2023 Expo, but lost out to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
"We're now sort of experienced because we've done this before, and at the moment Minnesota has no global competitor for 2027," Ritchie said.
Minnesota's planned theme is "Healthy People, Healthy Planet," with a focus on health and wellness that would tie into Minnesota's prolific medical technology and health care sectors.
The last World's Fair in the U.S. was in New Orleans in 1984. A decade later, Congress passed the law prohibiting the spending of federal dollars for a U.S. pavilion. "Some member of Congress thought this was a waste of money and said, 'Why are we doing this?' " said Paul Foldi, a former Republican staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has researched the issue.
In a 2011 Senate report, Foldi wrote that U.S. diplomatic efforts had suffered as the result of the country's declining participation in world expos.
"While many in the U.S. now view Expos as antiquated events of a bygone era, the rest of the world does not," Foldi wrote.
The Minnesota bid envisions a three-month expo beginning on Mother's Day 2027. The planned site is in the area known as the South Loop, south of the airport and east of the Mall of America. Jamie Verbrugge, Bloomington's city manager, said it would mean the construction of some permanent structures that the city could repurpose afterward.
There are no planned costs to Bloomington taxpayers, but plenty of economic benefits to both the city and region, organizers say.
An analysis for the host committee by Maryland-based Rockport Analytics projected about 13 million visitors over three months, or about 140,000 people per day, with 90% coming from outside the Twin Cities. The study predicted $2 billion in economic value for the region along with 17,000 full and part-time jobs.
"It's not just a fair or a festival," Verbrugge said. "These types of international events are really important to how the U.S. is viewed around the world, and I think our delegation understands that."
Patrick Condon • 202-662-7452