The Case for a World's Fair in Lansing, Michigan
The idea of world's fairs makes one wonder if any locality would suffice for such a purpose. They serve as showcases for new consumer introductions, bring in a lot of revenue and generally leave behind pleasant memories. Such now familiar products as air conditioning, the ice cream cone (introduced by a Syrian vendor named Swami at the 1904 St. Louis fair), space flight, television, the Ferris Wheel (Chicago, 1893) and the internal combustion engine--to name but a few--were first rolled out at past world's fairs. World's fairs should not be confused with county or state fairs, which too often degenerate into agricultural expos where first prize, such as a blue ribbon, is awarded to the best cow in the county and that sort of thing. World's fairs, by contrast, serve to energize visitors and to attract national and foreign tourists and to avoid a carnival atmosphere that can pervade the more local venues. If well thought out in advance, they can become a permanent part of the cultural landscape, even after they have folded and moved on. This article is committed to the notion that it does not take a world class city to host such an event. Therefore, Lansing, Michigan comes to mind as just such a candidate.
History of World's Fairs
Although they might be traced to antiquity, trade fairs really began in the Middle Ages, where merchants sought to display and sell their goods to buyers and travelers. Such fairs were frequently held at convenient crossroads, such as Champagne, Burgundy and Flanders. The evolution of the modern fair dates from 1851, when Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, hatched a scheme to promote the growing empire's influence in trade and culture. Located in Hyde Park, it featured large glass and iron buildings. It also inspired a namesake exhibition in New York, also called the Crystal Palace, near the center of mid-town Manhattan. Another great early fair was in Paris, which introduced the internal combustion engine inside a Benz, long before the merger with Mercedes, and left behind the Eiffel Tower as a souvenir of the great event. In San Francisco, the Palace of Fine Arts commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal. New York was again host to two outstanding world's fairs, in 1939-40 and 1964-65 in the same spot! Seattle hosted a futuristic fair in 1962 to honor man in the space age, and a relic of that fair, the Space Needle, has become synonymous in the public mind with Seattle. In the 1970's and 1980's, fairs became smaller and were to be found in such surprising venues as Spokane, Washington and Knoxville, Tennessee, seemingly in keeping with the adage that "less is more." Although it appears as if the heyday of fairs has passed, there are still probably grounds to have them in our time.
Who Makes These Decisions?
Currently, the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) is the governing body for world's fair designations. As with the International Olympic Committee, there are distinctions between "sanctioned" or large cities , and "recognized" or smaller cities. This brings to mind the division between summer and winter Olympic Games and the planning for those quadrennial events. For example, Dubai (in the United Arab Emirates), has recently put in a successful bid for such an event in the year 2020. However, all designated cities have been awarded into the year 2020, with distribution across Eurasia, including Greece, Poland and Russia --among other contenders-- with none in this hemisphere. Lansing, although a "recognized" class city, would qualify as a competitor, so it could definitely happen here.
A Theme and a Symbol
Before Lansing can be chosen as a possible site for a future fair, there has to be a theme and a symbol. Such memorable themes as "A Century of Progress," "Man and the Environment," " Peace Through Understanding" and "Energy Turns the World" have been featured in the past. Such great symbols as the Eiffel Tower, the Space Needle, the Unisphere and the Sunsphere have been the focus of past fairs. Assuming that Lansing got that far, a suitable symbol and theme would have to be created, perhaps along the lines of its historic robust industrial past while confidently evolving into a more high technology future.
There are quite a few sites around the area which could be possible candidates for even a modestly-sized fair, including the large Michigan State University campus and some golf courses. Ideally, some six hundred to more than a thousand acres should be available for fairgrounds and pavilions. Obviously, this would occur at a late stage of the planning process, but again keeping in mind the relatively small size contemplated, the spatial aspect is not as challenging as in the planning for a gigantic fair. It should also be recalled that all world's fairs are temporary, and after leaving, they seem in the memory to have been here today, but gone tomorrow. Usually right after they have departed, it appears that they were never there.
It is by no means certain that a world's fair will ever be held in Lansing. The bias in these matters tends to favor the large urban area over the smaller city. Certain other factors also weigh in, such as the guarantee of sufficient hotel space to accommodate anticipated crowds, although there would probably not be a serious overflow of fairgoers, given Lansing's modest size. But with Spokane and Knoxville as precedents before us, such a dream need not be deferred indefinitely, and it is hoped that the regional powers that be will give sober thought to this idea, and not dismiss it as a complete chimera.