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Next for Ritchie: Land Minnesota a World’s Fair

Kevin Featherly//August 20, 2014

Next for Ritchie: Land Minnesota a World’s Fair

Kevin Featherly//August 20, 2014

Anyone who has ever spent a half hour in conversation with Mark Ritchie knows that, when he is interested in something, his enthusiasm can fly off the charts.

Well, he is interested in bringing a World’s Fair to Minnesota. Really interested.

“We all really love Minnesota and think that more people ought to know about it,” Ritchie says in the middle of a long, rapid-fire monologue explaining why Minnesota is the perfect place for the 2023 World’s Fair.

“The World’s Fair,” he adds, “really is a way to, without hesitation, invite in millions of people and then show them.”

As chair of the Expo 2023 effort, Ritchie is part cheerleader, part organizer, part diplomat, and part shepherd. There is an enormous amount of work to do simply to get a business plan and bid submitted by the end of 2015, so that Minnesota can be considered as the 2023 World’s Fair site.

One thing that must be debated and decided between now and then, Ritchie says, is an appropriate Minnesota-related theme for the exhibition. Health and wellness is one idea that has been batted around, he says. Innovation is another. Food and agriculture is yet one more.

Final voting on the host site likely will take place around Thanksgiving 2016, he says.

If you’re surprised that such a thing as a World’s Fair still exists, you’re not alone.

Steve Heckler, founder of the Expo 2023 effort, says most Americans don’t know that nations still host and attend World’s Fair because the U.S. has all but ceased to promote them to citizens. The last time the fair was hosted in the United States was the 1984 exposition in New Orleans.

Ritchie says that, for the moment at least, Minnesota is the only region asking to play host to the 2023 World’s Fair. But that lack of competition won’t last long, he believes.

A potentially complicating factor is that Congress stopped approving dues payments to International Exhibitions Bureau (BIE), and so is no longer a member of that organization.

That doesn’t mean that the United States cannot play host to a world’s fair. However, Heckler says, it might be more difficult for the United States to become a host site if back dues, totally at least $150,000, are not paid to the BIE.

If the U.S. does not pay up, the Minnesota bid would have to net three-quarters of the 167 member nations’ votes. If the BIE does get paid, the bid only needs a simple majority — 50 percent of votes plus one. However, Heckler thinks it might be a non-issue. He says that the BIE is eager to get the United States back into the World’s Fair fold, and has shown flexibility on back dues with other countries in the past.

Ritchies thinks that Minnesota’s chances are great.

“When I began talking to friends of mine who were in [foreign] governments, they were very quick to say, ‘Hey, we really want the U.S. to start hosting again,’” Ritchie says. “Minnesota is the perfect place, because we are great at hosting people.”

Broad support

Ritchie was president of the Minneapolis-based Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy from 1986 to 2006 and co-founded the Global Environment and Trade Study research office at Yale University in 1994. In 2004, he founded Global Voice, a national coalition of churches, business and community organizations. He has been Minnesota secretary of state since 2006.

In short, he has lots of connections.

That is why Heckler says he eagerly handed over the reins of the Expo 2023 effort he launched two years ago to Ritchie.

“He is so good,” Heckler says. “He is connected, he is a great communicator and he is very good at articulating what the mission and goals are of a World’s Fair. I mean, I cannot tell you. This effort is still going — I’m going to say 100 percent — because of his efforts.”

Though they were not aware of each other at the time, as children both Heckler and Ritchie attended the 1964 World Fair in New York, and it left an indelible impression on both.

“Since then, I have just been kind of following World’s Fairs and enjoying them — what they are and what they represent to the planet, what they do to bring people and countries together,” Heckler says. “And I see we need a lot more of that in this world, not less of it.”

Heckler is an event organizer by trade, having organized numerous conventions and other gatherings. He has been director and CEO of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival since 1999 and was director of the Festival of Nations from 2005 to 2013.

Heckler says he was irked that the United States had no presence at the 2008 World’s Fair in Spain. When Minneapolis took itself out of consideration for the 2024 Olympics, Heckler says, he began polling people who had been working on that effort whether they thought Minnesota was World’s Fair material.

The answer, he says, was a rousing yes.

The effort has drawn support from a wide swath of corporate donors, including 3M, Flint Hills Resources, Carlson, UnitedHealth Group and the University of Minnesota, among many others. Influential individual supporters include Marilyn Carlson Nelson and Rudy Boschwitz.

However, it was when Ritchie stepped up, Heckler says, that he knew the perfect person was in place to lead the charge. “I think the only way it has a chance of happening is through Mark,” he says.

12 million visitors?

Ritchie, who is not running for re-election as secretary of state, says he is currently fostering connections in the U.S. State Department, which is heavily engaged in creating a U.S. pavilion for the 2015 World’s Fair in Milan, Italy.

The State Department and the Commerce Department — both of which have been pushing the idea of direct foreign investment in U.S. interests — are key to reestablishing U.S. membership in the BIE, Ritchie says.

If the World’s Fair lands here during the summer of 2023, Ritchie says, it would be a three-month affair — much smaller than the mega-event World’s Fairs that last six months and attract as many as 70 million people.

Minnesota could not handle that, Ritchie says. Its World’s Fair would occupy about 61 acres and draw somewhere between 10 million and 12 million people, he says.

However, he stresses, the event would not be a metro-only phenomenon. Tour buses could be arranged to take people to see the clipper ships of Duluth, or the Pipestone National Monument in southwestern Minnesota. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester could be significant draw.

The footprint could even be expanded beyond Minnesota, ushering people to the various Frank Lloyd Wright structures in Iowa and Minnesota, or to the National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids.

It wouldn’t be a bad thing, Ritchie adds, if Minnesota also managed to time the launch of a high-speed rail line between the Twin Cities and Rochester with the opening of the World’s Fair.

“People will say, ‘Wow! We didn’t know this about Minnesota!’” Ritchie says. “Maybe we ought to take a second look. Or maybe a student would say, ‘I went with my family to the World’s Fair in Minnesota and I found out about Carleton College or St. Olaf or St. Thomas.’ There are a lot of implications to inviting people.”

One such implication, he suggests, is that Minnesota might finally overcome the self-effacing bashfulness that has limited its presence on the world stage.

“We are shy about bragging out loud, but we love to show people this beautiful place, our incredible companies, our universities, our health care, all those things,” Ritchie says. “So, why not?”

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