U.S. gets in gear for Expo 2010


Averting a diplomatic disaster, the United States says its trouble-prone pavilion at Expo 2010 should be ready for the opening May 1 of the international fair here.

Jose H. Villarreal, a San Antonio lawyer tapped last summer by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to right the troubled project, said Wednesday that all but $8 million of the $61 million needed for the pavilion has now been raised from 34 corporate sponsors.

“It would have been unimaginable for the United States to be just about the only country on Earth not to be represented in a global event of this size,” said Villarreal, who holds the title of U.S. commissioner general for the expo that is expected to draw 70 million visitors from May to October.

U.S. law limits the use of public money for world fairs, and as a result the nation skipped the 2000 expo in Hanover, Germany, and had only a modest presence at Aichi, Japan, in 2005.

A year ago, so little money had been raised that it looked like the U.S. would be an embarrassing no-show at an event in which countries the size of Luxembourg have their own pavilions. The Shanghai fair is supposed to be one of the largest international expositions in history, with a price tag of $45 billion, exceeding even that of China’s summer Olympics in 2008.

Nick Winslow, a Pasadena-based theme park expert selected by the State Department to develop the American pavilion and exhibition, said fundraising was hampered in 2008 by the distraction of the Olympics, the presidential election and then the meltdown of the economy.

Clinton, during her first visit to China as secretary of State in February 2009, was told in no uncertain terms by senior Chinese officials that they would look askance if the United States was absent from the expo.

“They made it very clear, ‘This is important to us,’ ” Winslow said in a telephone interview, referring to the Chinese leadership.

Besides tapping Villarreal, a Democratic Party fundraiser, Clinton applied her own fundraising skills -- honed from past political campaigns she and her husband have run.

“Until Secretary Clinton committed her personal prestige to the project, we hadn’t raised any money,” Villarreal said. “In this environment, I would not have been successful otherwise.”

The sponsors of the American pavilion are mostly corporations doing business in China -- such as Chevron, PepsiCo and Marriott -- who see the expo as an opportunity to build brand recognition among the Chinese who will make up the bulk of fair-goers. “This is a way of demonstrating your friendship to China,” Winslow said, “keeping in mind that the Chinese reward their friends.”

A handful of American-based corporations, including General Motors, will have their own pavilions

Although the U.S. pavilion is nearly fully funded now, the longtime dearth of money has led to delays.

“The fact is that we are getting a late start. . . . It wasn’t completely clear that the U.S. would have a pavilion until June or July,” said Villarreal, who likened the process to building a bicycle while riding on it. Nonetheless, he said: “I guarantee it. We’re going to be open on May 1.”

The 60,000-square-foot building, resembling a large steel and glass shopping mall with a front opening up into a stage, appears to be complete except for inside fixtures. On the site Wednesday, workers installing water pipes in an adjacent building housing a KFC and a Pizza Hut concurred with the official assessment that the pavilion would open on time.

Designed by Canadian architect Clive Grout, the U.S. pavilion will feature live shows and multimedia in four performance spaces. Burbank-based BRC Imagination Arts is producing a show that celebrates American ingenuity with a parable abut a girl building an oasis out of a vacant lot.

Organizers are inviting famous entertainers and athletes, particularly hoping for NBA stars to capitalize on the Chinese infatuation with basketball. (Confirmed so far: jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is to perform during opening week at the invitation of Chinese expo organizers.)

In a program organized by USC, 160 American students -- all Chinese speakers -- are supposed to attend as ambassadors.

In recent months, relations with China have been buffeted by the confluence of a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan; a White House visit by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader; and allegations by Google of Chinese government support for hackers.

This,” U.S. Consul General in Shanghai Beatrice Camp said of the American pavilion, “is a bright spot in U.S.-China relations.”