The implosion of Expo ’17

A World’s Fair? Really?

The federal government has officially refused to give the City of Edmonton $700 million to hold a World’s Fair/Expo here in 2017, and I’d just like to mention to the Dominion at large, for the sake of civic dignity, that not everybody here is as apoplectic about it as our mayor, Stephen Mandel. I know what you’re all thinking, since you have probably learned about the bid for the first time in the morning papers.

A World’s Fair? Really? Edmonton’s latest bright idea for crashing through the scenery onto the world stage…was a concept that was already moth-eaten a hundred years ago? Are we talking about the kind of World’s Fair that attracts public debt, corruption, ethnic folk dances, and tractor displays? The kind that indulges everything from phony science to junk food to dictators? The kind that’s essentially an Olympics without the fun? That kind of World’s Fair?

Yeah, that kind of World’s Fair—the kind that, nowadays, comes with a tagline like “Harmony of Energy and Our Future Planet”, which was the proposed slogan of the aborted Edmonton proto-bid. (Presumably it sounds better in the original Mandarin.) To senior citizens and nostalgia freaks, the idea of the Expo carries a certain cachet; you must be a person whose pulse was once capable of being quickened by words like “progress” and “modernity” to feel the allure. I’m not immune myself, but a professional brand manager would surely suggest that Edmonton ought to get involved with something more hip, current, and relevant. Like the Boy Scouts or the League of Nations.

Certainly $700 million is $700 million, and in fact the total would certainly end up being much more. But one can’t help feeling that Edmonton has been spared some humiliation in being forced to withdraw from a bribery/flattery contest in which we were destined to be pitted against a super-heavyweight like the capital of Kazakhstan. “The bidding process alone,” the Edmonton Sun notes this morning, “was expected to carry a price tag of around $22 million.” Twenty-two million; nobody says either “Wow!” or “Why?” anymore when presented with a fact like this. Such an investment carries a nice little return (obtained from other Canadians) if you win the competition, but where do you suppose it ends up, and what obligations to the recipients are involved?

Some of the $700M that came Edmonton’s way would have been left behind in the form of infrastructure—infrastructure that would not in any sense benefit the nation as a whole (and that, in the wake of past Expos, has often taken the form of rusting, guano-streaked eyesores). Edmontonian boosters of the bid didn’t seem to realize that as their scintillating shopping lists of purely local benefits got longer and longer, the necessary rationale for federal funding grew shorter and shorter. The same could certainly be said of the Toronto Pan Am Games of 2015, which Ottawa is supporting; but, then, Toronto wisely held out its begging bowl in the summer of 2008, while the federal treasury was still in surplus and the streets were still paved with gold.

Mandel ranted yesterday about his city receiving different treatment during a recession, showing no sign of perceiving any difference between the conditions of 2008 and those of 2010. The supposed injustice to Edmonton is perhaps a good example of why cities should be left alone (with the necessary tax points) to build their own monuments to planetary energy harmony and whatnot. But for as long as we are governed according to Sloppy Federalism, some projects are inevitably going to become victims of the business cycle. You snooze, you lose—in this case, you lose several million dollars and get nothing back but James Moore’s signature. (Moore can now boast that his autograph costs several orders of magnitude more than Wayne Gretzky’s.)

The Pan Am Games cannot be rationally regarded as imposing a universal, permanent obligation on the federal government to fund the frenzied dreams of every big-city mayor. And thus Edmonton loses an opportunity for an expensive prolonged applauding of its ever-rambunctious self. Our arts, our sciences, and our industry will just have to bear the blow. Lily-livered culture cringers who imagined that a World’s Fair (actually a second-rate “International Recognized Expo” under BIE rules, rather than a full-fledged “World Expo”) would fling Edmonton onto the front pages of the planet’s newspapers have had their fantasies euthanized. Since these were nonsensical fantasies in the first place—go on, can you name the location of Expo 2010? It ended less than a month ago!—it is hard to regret their demise.