Triumph Crumbles : Dreams of '92 World's Fair Die in Chicago

Times Staff Writer

The local headlines heralded a "World Triumph!" The city of broad shoulders had knocked off Miami and an array of international challengers to grab the 1992 World's Fair, a $1.1-billion exposition honoring the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' journey to America.

"Age of Discovery" was to be no ordinary fair. It was officially designated a "universal class" exposition, the likes of which the world has not seen since 1970, in Osaka, Japan. Its price tag was more than twice that of the 1984 Summer Olympics.

But the dream has died, three years after Chicago's triumph. The lights were extinguished in the 30th-floor offices of the 1992 World's Fair Authority earlier this month. Strategy papers, internal memos, invoices and letters of encouragement were placed in boxes and sent to the Historical Society--curios of the fair that will never be.

The failure of the 1992 plans, in a city that hosted two of history's most successful fairs, points up the difficulties of producing a modern, world-class event in a major American city.

$12 Million Invested

In Chicago, where $12 million of public and private money already had been invested in the fair, planners blamed a variety of ills, including timidity and political divisiveness.

Multimillion-dollar losses for smaller-scale fairs in New Orleans and Knoxville, Tenn., heightened fears of financial risk. Japan's 1970 World's Fair attracted 61 million visitors and turned a profit, but it was a distant memory.

It did not help that the Summer Olympics was a huge success as a purely private venture. Half of the $1.1 billion needed to stage the 1992 fair would have come from the state in cash and loans, but private investors who put up the rest of the money would get first crack at proceeds, an arrangement that upset some lawmakers.

But, in the end, people blamed political feuding. "Conceived of as an event to bring a divided city together . . . (the fair) appears dead of the very malady it was meant to cure," the Chicago Tribune said in an editorial.

Two Previous Fairs

This city knows the good tidings a fair can bring. Chicago credits its world's fairs with making it a dominant cultural and economic force in the nation's heartland. At the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, George Ferris introduced his first "Ferris Wheel." And in 1933, at the Century of Progress World's Fair, more than 48 million visitors paid 50 cents apiece to see, among other wonders, a new machine called an air conditioner.

Boosters hoped that the 1992 Chicago fair, paired with one in Seville, Spain, would enhance the city's international reputation and combat its image as a declining city.

But soon after the euphoria of Chicago's selection wore off, people began worrying about traffic congestion, neighborhood disruptions and the fair's economic feasibility.

John D. Kramer, general manager of the Fair Authority, noted that doubts also had surfaced in Los Angeles before the Olympics and in Montreal before the 1967 Expo. The difference? "A strong, unified political leadership was ready, willing and able to overcome" the doubts, Kramer said.

Mayor Unenthusiastic

In Chicago, the fair dream nurtured under Mayor Jane M. Byrne was never embraced as enthusiastically by her successor, Harold Washington.

The site selected for the fair was south of the Loop, in an area along Lake Michigan. Supporters said it would revitalize that area, bring in tourist money and leave new lake-front parks.

But many worried that it was a financial gamble. In withdrawing support for the fair, Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan said he would be remembered as the man "who saved Illinois from wasting all that money."

Asking for state funds was a mistake, said Donald A. Petkus, of the Chicago World's Fair 1992 Corp., the private forerunner of the Fair Authority. "All of a sudden, we were using taxpayer money when Los Angeles had just completed a successful Olympics using sponsorships and licenses," he said.

The private group still holds the fair license, and Petkus says it is looking for "alternate ways" to stage the fair. But the group will likely surrender the permit when the Board of International Expositions meets later this year.

'Risky Proposition'

It is too early to tell if any other city will take over the fair. "There's enough doubt about the role of a world's fair in the current entertainment economy for other cities to say maybe this was a risky proposition from the beginning," Kramer said.

For Chicago, the 1992 World's Fair has become the fair that ended up in boxes, a historical footnote rather than a grand happening.

Says Kramer: "I don't think a week will go by between now and 1992 when I won't think--at least for a moment--of what might have been."

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