What’s the future done for you lately? Our hoverboards don’t hover, our Roombas are no Rosie the Robot, and almost half a century after Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, the U.S. relies on Russia to get to space. Maybe the problem, says Michael Weiss, is that Americans don’t do things big anymore.
Weiss, 25, is the founder of Worlds Fair USA, a crowdfunded company that plans to raise $16 billion to begin the process of bringing the expo back to the U.S., which last hosted a world’s fair in 1984, in New Orleans. For a century before that, the country played host to expos that saw the public debuts of the telephone (1876, Philly); the Ferris wheel and zipper (1893, Chicago); the X-ray machine (1901, Buffalo); the baby incubator (1909, Seattle); the TV (1939, New York); videoconferencing (1964, New York); and touchscreens (1982, Knoxville). “For the world’s fair to matter again, it has to happen in America,” Weiss says. “America is where the future happens.”
The expos have continued around the world, lasting six months in a different location about every five years. Shanghai was the host in 2010, Milan this year, and Dubai will be the site in 2020. What’s been missing is a prominent U.S. presence since the 1984 New Orleans expo became the only world’s fair to declare bankruptcy. In 1994, Congress banned the federal government from spending money on such fairs in a move to trim fat from the budget.
U.S. delegations have turned to nonprofits and corporate backers, notably Citigroup and Chevron, to cover the cost of a fair pavilion, which now runs about $60 million. The results have been “embarrassing,” says James Ramsey, the architect of New York’s proposed subterranean park, the Lowline. At the Shanghai fair in 2010, “the U.S. pavilion just looked like a Costco with ‘USA’ written on it,” he says.
Shanghai’s record attendance of 73 million helped reboot the fair as a confidence booster akin to the Olympics, says Anna Jackson, a curator at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and the author of a history of international expos. Earlier this year in Milan, Secretary of State John Kerry trumpeted the U.S. pavilion’s record-setting 65,000 visitors in a single day. “The fairs help people adjust to changing times,” Jackson says.
Weiss hopes to lure the expo back to the U.S. in the next decade. By February, he says, he’ll have a pool of 10,000 interested attendees and the first $6 million in hand, which he’ll use for a website, marketing, feasibility studies on site proposals, and fairground models, as well as to pay contractors. He’s been working to identify potential 1,000-acre fairgrounds in six parts of the country.
The atmosphere and excitement generated by the fairs are as important as innovations displayed in the pavilions, says Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist and pop futurist. At age 5, he visited the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which he says “affected me deeply, as the 1939 fair affected Carl Sagan.” He remembers the IBM pavilion’s 90-foot IMAX forebear and his first swig of Fresca. “It affects our sense of possibility.”
Vicente Gonzalez Loscertales, secretary-general of the Bureau of International Expositions, an intergovernmental body in Paris that oversees the fairs, says his organization “greatly welcomes” any plans to bring one to the U.S.
Weiss, who has an undergraduate business degree from Washington University in St. Louis, for three years worked for and eventually ran Escape, a popular annual real estate conference. “I think anybody would be a fool to bet against Weiss,” says Stan Gale Jr., president of developer Gale International’s New York office, who attended an Escape conference featuring water jet packs alongside lectures from chief executive officers such as Tony Hsieh of Zappos. Gale recalls the general takeaway among the industry attendees as, “Wow, that was awesome.”
That’s not to say real estate developers’ interests necessarily dovetail with high tech. For example, the Sunsphere from Knoxville’s 1982 expo has been near-derelict for decades. “This feels like a pipe dream,” says Timothy Kellison, an assistant professor of tourism at the University of Florida. He says Weiss’s $16 billion budget is too low—and a projection double that would still be conservative.
Weiss has been touring the U.S. to raise money: New York in November, Chicago in December, San Francisco planned for January. “I have more than ample high-net-worth people in my immediate network,” he says, though he wouldn’t say how much he’s raised. By May, he says, he’ll open an online vote for the expo’s location, to be set by next fall. Asked how he plans to make the leap from $6 million to $16 billion, Weiss laughs and cites a viral video shot in November by a man taking a jet-pack-powered spin around the Statue of Liberty. “I don’t think I’ll have trouble finding people who dream like I dream and can make this a reality,” he says.
The bottom line: Weiss is tapping his real estate contacts to help win and host a world’s fair, but he may need more than twice what he’s projected.