Friday, July 30, 2021

A World’s Fair in Minnesota: Exclusive interview with Mark Ritchie

By Jim Ogul

Thanks to the efforts of Mark Ritchie and his organization’s 2027 Minnesota bid, the United States may be hosting a world’s fair for the first time since 1984. (Perhaps you remember the Louisiana World Exposition, in New Orleans. It’s been a long time.)

World’s fairs began in 1851 with London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition. Since the late 1980s to the present, countries in Europe, Asia, and soon the MidEast have embraced hosting them, while the U.S. has lagged in participation. But fortunately, that may be about to change.

It’s official: On June 29, the U.S. announced to the 168th General Assembly of the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE – the Paris-based organization that oversees world’s fairs) that the State of Minnesota will bid to host a specialized Expo in 2027. A specialized Expo is a three-month event, which under BIE rules can take place between the larger, six-month events (Expo 2020 Dubai is the next large one, opening October 21 after a one-year COVID delay) which take place every five years. 

The theme of Expo 2027 Minnesota USA is “Healthy People, Healthy Planet: Wellness and Well-Being for All.” If the bid is successful (there may be other bidders – Malaga, Spain has shown an interest) it would be the first BIE-sanctioned Expo in the U.S. in 43 years (since New Orleans ’84) and the first in North America since Vancouver Expo 86. 

Having served with U.S. pavilions at the past three North American world’s fairs – Expo 82 Knoxville as Exhibits Officer, Expo 84 New Orleans as Exhibits Director, and Expo 86 Vancouver as Pavilion Director – I can attest from personal experience to the enthusiasm of millions of visitors to these events. I can further attest to the revitalization these events bring to the communities that host them. On a more personal note, it is gratifying to see the U.S. Government supporting our candidacy to host a world expo after all these years of absence. It is also gratifying that the U.S. Government decided to rejoin the BIE after its unfortunate withdrawal in 2001. Without BIE member status, it would be impossible for the country to win a bid to host an official world’s fair; with it, the Minnesota bid has the required nod from the federal government. These are hopeful signs that bode well for an overall, stronger future U.S. role in world’s fairs – as a host as well as a participant

I interviewed Mark Ritchie, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Minnesota World’s Fair Bid Committee to find out more about the endeavor. — J.O.

What was the motivation for having a world’s fair in Minnesota?

A small group of individuals – all of whom had been impacted by visiting a world’s fair as youth – came together to see what could be done to make this experience available to future generations of young people in the United States.

You actively urged the U.S. to rejoin the Bureau of International Expositions, which was a prerequisite to a successful Expo bid. Can you tell us more about that?  

Yes – that was the most difficult part of this process. Congress instructed the U.S. State Dept. to withdraw from the BIE – after having denied the use of appropriations to pay annual dues for three years in a row. When State complied with this instruction from Congress, they stated that there would be some negative consequences – including making it impossible for a city/region in the U.S. to host an Expo.

In 2009, Manuel Delgado from Houston was quoted in the Wall Street Journal pushing against this decision – calling on the U.S. to re-join so Houston could bid to host a world’s fair.

When our group started talking about hosting an Expo in Minnesota, we made it our initial focus that the U.S. must rejoin the BIE. I began meeting with everyone who would take a meeting with me at the State Department. I also met with BIE leadership in Paris to make sure they knew that Minnesota was very serious about both objectives – hosting an Expo and, therefore, getting the US back into the BIE. What we discovered in the process was that there was never actual legislative language that pulled the U.S. out of the BIE, but rather an unusual mechanism used by the Appropriations Committee called “report language.” New report language was needed to reverse the earlier decision. Eventually, a formal piece of legislation was introduced and passed unanimously to re-join the BIE. This legislation, called the “U.S. Wants to Compete for a World Expo Act,” was authored by Minnesota Congressman Tom Emmer, with strong support by the entire Minnesota delegation. In the end, this became law with strong support from the White House, and unanimous consent of both the House and the Senate on May 8th, 2017. This was the green light that triggered the U.S. rejoining the BIE. 

Was your earlier attempt for a Minnesota hosted expo in 2023 helpful in preparing for this 2027 bid?

Very much so! Our first campaign was a huge success – seeing the United States government re-join the BIE was our #1 objective and this happened just in time to be able to join the final round of voting. In the course of that 2023 bid campaign, we learned about the rules, regulations, and expectations of the expo process, and the key concepts that now guide our every move. And although the U.S. had some catching up to do on its official BIE status, we were warmly embraced by the BIE community and helped at every turn. What’s more, we have continued to build ever closer working partnerships with other countries that will be crucial not only for winning our bid but also ensuring success for the 2027 Expo.

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168th Session of the BIE General Assembly in session via Zoom, June 29, 2021. Courtesy BIE

We had only a slim chance of winning on our first attempt, but we also knew that if we made a good impression the first time around, we might be successful in our subsequent efforts. That early commitment to the long-haul is really paying off for us.

What can you tell us about the rationale for your theme? 

We debated several possible themes and selected one that reflected our region’s reputation as a global center of excellence in healthcare and healthy living, and that supports sustainable development. “Healthy People, Healthy Planet: Wellness and Well-Being for All” is what we’ve been using as our theme since 2014.  

Where will the Expo be located and what can you tell us about the site? 

Our site will be in the South Loop region of Bloomington, which is Minnesota’s fifth-largest city. It is within a few minutes’ drive or light-rail from our international airport, adjacent to the largest public transit hub in our state, and near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. This region also is the home to the Mall of America, visited by 40 million people each year.

Can you describe the local, state, regional and nationwide support you envision for the Minnesota Bid?

We are now in position to shift focus to moving into the national arena. With this designation by the President, we are hearing from people across the country – in big and small companies, state, and local agencies, and from NGOs of all sizes wanting to get involved.

Are you going to Expo 2020 Dubai, which opens October 1, 2021? 

Yes. During Expo Milan (2015) we took four delegations. We’re very excited about Dubai, and this time we will be attending an expo as the candidate of the U.S. government.

Tell us about your “day job.”

As President of Global Minnesota, our state’s 70-year-old World Affairs Council, my primary job is connecting Minnesotans to the world and the world to Minnesota. This is a perfect fit for advocating for our bid with leaders in science, Industry, and other countries. In my spare time I have the honor of serving as Minnesota’s Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the U.S. Army.

How can people reach out to get involved with Minnesota 2027?

On our website, check out the Media and Community sections and sign up to join the email list: www.minnesotausaexpo.com.

Jim Ogulhttps://www.inparkmagazine.com/talesfromtheexpo/
Since retiring from the US State Department in 2011 after a 30+ year career in world expos, James Ogul ([email protected]) has remained on the scene in an advisory and consulting role. He writes regularly for InPark Magazine about world’s fairs. See his free online book, Tales From the Expo.

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