Exploring Edmonton's EXPO Bid

We're the lone Canadians vying for the 2017 'World's Fair,' which will put our city on the global stage


I'VE heard a lot of people chit-chatting about a global event that may or may not come to our blushing city, and if it may, it wouldn't even be for another seven & a half years! But that certainly hasn't stopped folks from putting in their two cents about the proposed "Edmonton EXPO 2017." So, I Heart decided to take a peek behind the curtains for ourselves, and determine the good, the bad and the ugly of hosting the "World's Fair."

First things first, though. Do you even know what the EXPO is exactly? Me neither, so let's find out together, shall we?!

The History:
I've always known the EXPO as its other moniker, the "World's Fair," a public exhibition of the globe's latest developments in manufactured products, international relations, tourism, and arts & culture, and has been for more than a century and a half. Actually, it's a pretty big deal!

Trailing only the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup as the world's largest single event, in terms of cultural and ecomomic impact, the EXPO premiered at London's Hyde Park in 1851 (pictured left). Back then it was known as the "Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations." Fortunately, that moniker didn't stick.

That very first GHWIAN, for short (ahh...let's just stick with EXPO from hereonin), was pulled together by the likes of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Henry Cole (who introduced the first commercial Christmas card!), and was attended by some of the era's most influential individuals, including Charlotte Brontè, Lewis Carroll, and even Charles Darwin. That's impressive company, if I do say so myself.

It moved over to Paris for round two, four years later in 1855, and has since returned to "The City of Light" five times, including the groundbreaking 1900 EXPO. At that exhibition the world was introduced to "talkies" (movies with audio) and escalators (stairs that move, in case you didn't know), and had merged with the second-ever Olympic Games, the first time female athletes were able to compete. See, I told you this was a big deal!

But that's not even Paris' most memorable staging! Nope, that would be the 1889 fair that introduced the Eiffel Tower (pictured right), not to mention a collaborative performance by the actual Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley. Neat!

And it's not only Paris or London that have hosted some of the most important fairs that have welcomed some of the greatest achievements, inventions, distinctions, or creations of modern human history...

In Chicago 1893 America first layed their eyes on the Ferris Wheel, commemorative coins, the hamburger, the first commercial movie theater, and even Chicago's own "Windy City" nickname. At the 1901 Pan-American Exposition (Buffalo), X-ray machines were first shown to the world. St. Louis 1904 popularized American kitchen essentials like peanut butter, cotton candy, iced tea and Dr. Pepper, and hosted the 1904 Summer Olympics to boot.

Other landmark occasions of these illuminating fairs have included the introductions of the telephone, typewriter & Heinz ketchup (1876-Philadelphia), the Statue of Liberty (1878-Paris), the steam locomotive (1915-San Francisco), the Space Needle & the monorail (1962-Seattle), early computers & the Ford Mustang (1964-New York City), mobile phones & IMAX films (1970-Osaka, Japan), touch screen technology & Cherry Coke (1982-Knoxville, Tennessee). Not too shabby!

The Dark Side:
With great success comes great controversy, a fact we know all too well (just look at Avatar), and that has plagued the "World's Fair" since day one, when conservatives were up in arms that the massive numbers of visitors at London's "Great Exhibition" would transition into a mob of revolutionaries. That pioneering exhibit of 1851 also had radical Karl Marx claiming that the fair resembled an "emblem of the capitalist fetishism of commodities." Bla, bla, bla...

1884's edition in New Orleans was afflicted with scandal and corruption, as state treasurer Edward A. Burke fled abroad with more than $1.77 million in state money, which included most of the budget for the fair. At Chicago's 1893 exhibit the city's mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. was assassinated two days before closing ceremonies. Another assassination cursed the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, where anarchist Leon Czologosz killed U.S. President William McKinley at the Temple of Music (depicted left).

There were plenty of problems to deal with during 1907's Jamestown Exposition in Virginia, where organizers were faced with electrical issues, uncompleted infrastructure, low attendance, insufficient traffic, overpriced hotels, muddy conditions, racism, and a loss of millions of dollars in the end. 30 years later, at Paris' 1937 showcase, racism was on full display, when Hitler approved a Nazi Germany pavilion that included a giant swastika symbol atop a 500-foot tower that was illuminated at night.

And although Montreal's 1967 take was the most successful "World's Fair" of the 20th century, it dealt with a host of snags, including terrorist threats, war protestors, and a 30-day transit strike right in the middle of the EXPO. But worst of all, Montreal faced an unprecedented deficit of more than $210 million! But 1984's New Orleans EXPO became the first to file for bankruptcy during its run, and remains the last time a "World's Fair" was held in the U.S.

The Bid:
It was the Fall of 2007 when the City of Edmonton initiated a high-level assessment of a bid to host the 2017 Exposition, citing our "diverse multicultural society" as reason enough. That set in motion a controversial (& expensive) movement towards officially welcoming the "World's Fair," and with it, the global community to our city. The 3-month affair would set us back an estimated $2.3 billion.

City Council quickly put together a 40-member citizen committee made up of leaders of business and the community in order to come up with a conceptual report. That report exposed positive results in going forward with the plan, and on October 29, 2008 our City Council approved pursuing the next step.

From there we needed to create and present not only a business case, but also a national bid for the EXPO, objectives the Council unanimously approved on April 15, 2009. Besides exploring viability, costs and the feasibility of hosting one of the world's biggest events, the city now had to consult its citizens on the whole concept. That's where they hit a snag.

"An event like this can be a real boon to cities that already have the infrastructure and lifestyle in place to be vibrant, connected municipalities," wrote Vue Weekly's David Berry, "But Edmonton is not there yet, and we'd do well spending more time with our eyes on our sidewalks and roadways than in the sky."

That was a routine response to the bid--which costs $22 million itself--and helps explain why only 55 Edmontonians attended the city's open house promotion on December 8, 2009. I blame a lack of promotion myself, as I was completely unaware of the scheduled discussion and Q&A. That, and the fact that most locals didn't really care either way!

Nonetheless, Edmonton recieved official support from the province on July 20, 2009 to present its bid to the EXPO. "An event like this provides a platform to celebrate the uniqueness and vibrancy of our capital city and province," stated Alberta's Minister of Culture & Community Spirit Lindsay Blackett. "I wish the City of Edmonton all the best in its bid preparations."

A survey by Lèger Marketing in the Summer of '09 contradicts this, though, finding that 83% of Albertans surveyed supported Edmonton's plans.

Finally, on November 30, 2009, Bid Committee Chair Tony Franceschini made the announcement many were waiting for. "It's official. Edmonton is in!" he said. "We've made a powerful case for EXPO, in Edmonton, in 2017. Now, it's time to spread the word, and grow the dream."

"With EXPO, we are not talking about today--we're opening up to the possibilities for tomorrow. It's about what we as a country, province and city might aspire to become and what we believe we must share with the world"
eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-Tony Franceschini

The city also revealed the proposed theme for the event, "Harmony of Energy and Our Future Planet," as well as a potential main site for the fair (U of A south campus). And as of now, it seems Edmonton is the frontrunner for hosting duties, competing against "possible bidders" in Stavanger, Norway, Lille, France and Belgrade, Serbia. Oh yeah, and we can't forget about Calgary!

The Calgary Chapter:
How dare they?! Calgary, our longtime rivals, thought they'd try and pull the rug up from underneath us and steal the show...quite literally (except for that rug part)!

"It was a bit of a surprise," remarked Franceschini, referring to Calgary's May 29, 2009 last-minute announcement that they were also interested in hosting the EXPO in 2017! Huh?!

May 29th happened to be the deadline for Canadian cities to notify the federal government of their intentions on hosting duties. "I'm hoping what's going to happen is a fair and proper process is put into place where both cities will be able to compete in a fair basis and an equal basis and the best city will win," said Calgary Ald. John Mar. "After that, just like in the playoffs, once your team gets knocked out, you end up cheering for the other team."

Not surprisingly, Edmonton's Bid Committee was not impressed with the news that Calgary wanted in on the event, after our city had been working on the idea for some two years. Calgary's organizers had even offered to share the limelight (isn't that nice of them?!), possibly hosting the EXPO collaboratively in both cities.

"If it were an athletic event like the Universiade, maybe, but not a large trade show like the EXPO," commented Edmonton City Councillor Tony Caterina. "Given the circumstances that has progressed, I would find it very surprising if Edmonton's Bid Committee, doing all this work for the past couple of years, would agree to co-host Calgary if they decided to get in this game."

He was right. Edmonton politicians and community leaders were not willing to share the EXPO, and thus started an uproar of bloggers and Twitterers to express their distaste for whatever side they weren't supporting.

Because Canada can only choose one city to host the event, Edmonton and Calgary would've gone head to head in the bid process. Fortunately, near the beginning of November '09, Calgary came to its senses and backed down, deciding to "just [give] the EXPO bid to Edmonton." This came just weeks short of the November 30th deadline to submit a formal bid to the federal government.

"I hate losing to Edmonton," said Calgary Ald. Joe Connelly, "but to not have the courage to show up for the fight..."

Yeah, whatever makes you sleep at night! Hamilton, Ontario also showed some interest in taking on the fair, but backed down early on.

What to Expect:
"Think big. Think bold. Think eight years down the road...Edmonton's bid to host EXPO 2017 marks the start of an exciting, new journey for Edmonton, Alberta and Canada." That's from the official website for "Edmonton EXPO 2017," a proposal that would coincide with Canada's 150th birthday.

Edmonton would expect to shell out about $2.3 billion to go forward with hosting, but an economic impact study forecasted a $2.6 billion boost to Canada's economy, most of which ($2.3 billion) would go directly to the economy of Alberta, and Edmonton is expected to generate $127 million in revenue. In addition to that, the 93-day (June-September 2017) event would create thousands of temporary jobs that could generate about $1.5 billion in salaries & wages. Again, not too shabby!

If we do get the opportunity to host EXPO it would be set in two different locations in Edmonton, with the main staging area dedicated to the south campus of the University of Alberta. The other site would be Rossdale, though a redevelopment would have to take place first, including a revamped Maxwell Dewar Building and a transformed Rossdale Power Plant.

Those in charge of developing an overall image for the potential infrastructure & adventurous concepts imagine river taxi's on the North Saskatchewan, a new signature bridge (which would replace the 97-year-old Walterdale), extended transit & pathways, celebratory plazas & spaces, enhancements to the Alberta Legislature grounds, and most importantly, "transforming civic pride, culture and community spirit."

The once-in-a-generation experience serves as a catalyst for spurring transformation, renewal and development in its host city, which would reap the benefits of long-term tourism, possible immigration, and potenital investment, as well as an amplified global recognition.

AECOM estimates that Edmonton's EXPO could expect about 5.3 million visits to the event, including more than a million from the U.S. and overseas. These guests would take in a 25-hectare site of a recreation & leisure zone, nine performance stages, and more than 100 pavilions representing dozens of nations from around the world. Plus, we could stick it to Calgary!

"I believe the possibilities for Edmonton are endless," said Mayor Stephen Mandel. "The prospect of hosting EXPO in Canada's 150th year makes the opportunity even more compelling. "There could be no better place to mark this national milestone than here, in Alberta's capital city."

Unfortunately, we can't get too ahead of ourselves just yet, because it won't be until the Fall of 2012 that the delegates to the International Exhibitions Bureau vote on who they award the hosting job to. So put down your paper horns and get down from the table, and wait it out with the rest of us. Until then, we can only imagine!


  1. Bit late to comment, perhaps, but Hamilton wasn't the only city in the running:


    Also, you forgot Fuller's Geodesic dome, Habitat 67, and pictograms from Expo 67. ;-)

  2. No longer a reality but you never know


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