Document 73: Environment May Get Lost

Milton R. Moskowitz, “Expo’74: Spokane – The Environment May Get Lost,” Cry California 9:3 (Summer 1974): 28-32.

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Milton R. Moskowitz

The environment was supposed to take center stage at the world’s fair which opened a six-month run at Spokane, Washington, earlier this month. Whether it would remained, just before the opening, a moot question. To be sure, this is the first world’s fair in history to take the environment as its guiding motif. The official themeline of Expo ’74 is: “Celebrating tomorrow’s fresh new environment.” Between the idea and the execution, however, there’s a gap that could prove to be embarrassingly wide.

A fair is a fair is a fair: that’s a stumbling block right away. To be successful, a fair must attract people. In Spokane’s case, the attendance goals are, by world’s-fair standards, very modest. This city in eastern Washington with a population of 180,000 is the smallest metropolis ever to host a world’s fair and it will be happy to get five million clicks of the turnstiles. But the way to attract five million people is the same way you attract 50 million—and that way comes out of Disneyland. This is why the “Come to Spokane” advertisements which have been running in the western part of the country have harped on traditional fair verities: Bob Hope and Lawrence Welk, gondola rides, exotic dining and shopping, Olga Korbut, and pavilions and exhibits mounted by the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, Australia, Mexico, Canada, the Republic of China, West Germany, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, and Iran.

But the promotion of the environmental theme has been cut to a throwaway line. John Musgrave, director of marketing for Expo ’74, explained: “People come to fairs to have fun. I don’t expect anyone to drive 1,000 miles to get educated.”

Expo ’74, in other words, is a microcosm of all the problems associated with protection and enhancement of the environment. The intentions were certainly good. Here, for example, is one lofty statement of aims from the planners: “Expo ’74 will provide a unique opportunity for one of the most in-depth assessments of environmental issues ever presented for the general public.” That sounds fine—and it was implemented by a fair-long series of events, including a symposium program designed to involve not just the “experts” but the average visitor. The trouble is, as we all know, whether it’s in business or government or our daily lives, everyone is for the environment—how can you be against it?—but the going gets tougher as costs increase. In any case, once the machinery of a world’s-fair was set in place at Spokane, attention was riveted on making the exposition a commercial success. As a result, there was this contrast: Expo ‘74’s news bureau was staffed by more than 20 persons, a Hollywood press agent retained and more than $1 million spent in media advertising in newspapers, television, radio, and outdoor poster sites. Meanwhile, the group charged with preparing the environmental guts of the fair had a total complement of 10 persons and was so under-financed that 45 days before the opening they were still scurrying around Washington, D. C., and other centers of power attempting to raise the money needed to field the programs which were supposed to be the raison d’être of Expo ’74.

Early support for the environmental program came from three sources. The National Science Foundation gave planning grants totaling $125,000. The Environmental Protection Agency came through with $75,000. And the Battelle Memorial Institute made available $50,000.These sums were hardly adequate for the comprehensive program drawn up by an environmental task force headed by Melvin L. Alter, who was director of African operations for Kaiser Aluminum before working [?] on the Expo ’74 assignment. A key member of the staff is Robert L. Stilger, previously assistant director of the Northwest Environmental Communications Network based in Portland, Oregon.

Both Alter and Stilger have (had might be a more appropriate word) ambitions that go beyond Spokane and 1974. They envisioned Expo ’74 as the springboard for a deep public involvement in environmental problems, an involvement that would lead to community-action programs throughout the Pacific Northwest and that might even eventuate in the establishment of a permanent environmental resource center in Spokane or some other city.

Since Expo ’74 is the first officially recognized event of the American Revolution Bicentennial Celebration, it was hoped that the environmental aspects of the fair might lead logically to a series of “quality of life” assessments to be conducted during 1975 and 1976 and continue beyond the anniversary year. All or part of this plan may yet come to pass, but such long-range goals were set aside in the nitty-gritty of getting a world’s fair ready to open its doors this spring.

Late in March, just 36 days before the fair was scheduled to open, major chunks of the environmental program were still not in place, mostly for lack of funding. At that point, Petr L. Spurney, general manager of Expo ’74 stepped in. He dismissed Alter and brought in a New York organization, James O. Rice Associates, to take over management of the environmental symposia. Peter Mitterhauser of the Rice firm was installed as the new director. Spurney said that in the absence of necessary funds, the fair itself would underwrite costs. At the same time, it seemed likely that the program would be cut back.

Having seen other world’s fairs in the frantic preparation stages, however, I may not be entirely correct to view the exposition in such a negative light. When everything is in flux, it always seems as though the finished package will never be ready in time. And there are features that will bring an environmental presence to the fair. For example:

All of this will take place at Expo ’74. What was still in doubt as this article went to press was a series of seven topical conferences. These would constitute, in many ways, the most ambitious part of the environmental program. Each would focus on a specific issue: energy, population, health, agriculture, human settlement, and the recover and development of natural resources. Each would run for three days at nearby Gonzaga University. And each would bring together not just “experts” but members of the general public. The idea would be to set up forums fruitful enough to delineate the issues and formulate policy recommendations. Mr. Stilger, who did all the planning for these conferences, hoped the topicals would demonstrate that information about the environment could be organized and synthesized in such a way that it could be made available to people in their own communities to use in planning solutions to their local problems.

As it turned out, funding for the topical conferences could not be obtained from federal agencies or nonprofit institutions, and if policies to date are any guide, the symposia series will be low on the fair administration’s list of priorities.

That there is such a tug-of-war in Spokane will not be surprising to anyone who has confronted the murky issue of “tradeoffs” when environmental issues are considered. Still, a serious effort is being made, and the atmosphere is quite different from those prevailing at Osaka, Montreal, Seattle and San Antonio in other years. Visitors will know they have attended an environmental fair.

From one standpoint, Expo ’74 is already an environmental success. The principal motivation for a world’s fair at Spokane came because the city embarked during the late 1860s on an urban renewal drive. The Spokane River threads its way through the heart of the city, and its banks near the downtown business district were blighted with a tangle of railroad tracks and skid-row dwellings. After the decision was made to clean up this area, King F. Cole, a community planner who headed the redevelopment effort, conceived the idea of a world’s fair as a splendid vehicle to accomplish what the city was trying to do: give itself a new face. Cole, who is now president of Expo ’74, made 22 trips to Paris before obtaining the sanction of the Bureau of International Expositions in November of 1971.

The railroad tracks were dismantled and Expo ’74 has been created on a 100-acre site that occupies two islands and two banks of the river. The fair, successful or not, will leave Spokane with open house, a new convention facility, an amphitheatre, and a city-owned riverfront park and recreation area. So the fair’s theme, “Celebrating tomorrow’s fresh, new environment,” is certainly appropriate for Spokane—it will have reclaimed an ambient environment for itself.

However, a rare opportunity will have been lost if the thematic programs of Expo ’74 do not underscore the worldwide extent of man’s environmental dilemma by providing the groundwork for educational and planning efforts, regional and national as well as international, which can continue beyond the exposition and become a part of the country’s bicentennial stock-taking. Spokane should take the torch from Stockholm, and there is still time.

Milton R. Moskowitz is author of a nationally syndicated newspaper column, Money Tree, and senior editor of the quarterly forum, Business & Society Review.

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest