VANCOUVER, Canada — Things have not gone British Columbia's way in recent years. But there is hope--a giant party.
Faced with an unemployment rate consistently above 10%, nonexistent industrial growth and a disappearing economic base, the powers that be are counting on a world's fair called Expo '86 to point the way back to prosperity.
Expo '86 is scheduled to open May 2 and go on for 5 1/2 months. Vancouver expects it to attract millions of people to a 250-acre site crowded with displays, rides, concerts and fast-food outlets. Transportation and communication will be the theme.
Provincial Premier Bill Bennett, the key promoter for the fair, said it is part of an economic strategy designed to catch the attention of the world.
In an interview, Bennett lamented British Columbia's traditional dependency on exporting such natural resources as lumber and coal for which there has been declining demand. Expo '86, he said, will promote tourism and "create a service industry as the fastest way to create employment."
The potential beyond Expo "is tremendous," he said, and added, "I don't know where we would be without Expo."
His cheery hope is based on figures that indicate that the fair will be the most successful in recent times, the best since Montreal's Expo '67 and far outpacing expositions in Japan, New Orleans and Knoxville, Tenn.
Sales are moving briskly, with more than 9 million of the projected 13.5 million tickets already paid for and construction running far ahead of schedule. There will be pavilions from 32 countries, every Canadian province and territory, and three American states.
Entertainers will be on hand, from the Kirov ballet company to the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as Broadway stars and rock groups.
And, according to Jim Pattison, the millionaire trucking tycoon who is directing Expo on a volunteer basis, the project will not overrun its budgeted $300-million deficit.
All this is aimed at turning British Columbia into a tourist mecca and service-industry center to replace lumber and mining as the province's economic engine.
"It will be the magical event of the year," Vancouver Mayor Mike Harcourt, once a bitter critic, said recently. "It's going to build the realization that this is one of the best places around, a choice destination for tourists, conventions . . . a catalyst for growth and job creation." Maybe so, but there are skeptics who have raised questions not only about the long-term economic benefits, but also about forecasts that the fair will restore civic pride and transform Vancouver into a more livable city.
Dave Barrett, a former premier whose moderately socialist New Democratic Party was defeated by Bennett and his Social Credit Party, at least in part over the Expo issue, said the fair "is a kind of psychological circus to give people a lot of hope . . . the sort of thing that goes back to Nero."
Looking for Miracle
Talking with a reporter, Barrett likened the area's economic malaise to a deadly illness, and added: "If you're terminally ill with economic cancer you go for the apricot pit. People are looking for a miracle . . . but there is no thoughtful planning for economic development after Expo. What is missing is the will to form rational economic and political thought. You don't build a solid economy on a party."
Nonsense, Bennett said. He described Expo as part of an economic strategy, accompanied by tax breaks and other incentives aimed not only at building tourism but attracting businesses and financial institutions that will see that British Columbia provides modern technology and a good investment climate.
Bennett has invited 32,000 international businessmen and firms to come to Expo and tour Vancouver and the rest of the province.
Harcourt, who once wrote to the international organization that authorizes world's fairs to protest putting Expo '86 in Vancouver, but then came around to supporting Bennett's view, also dismissed the gainsayers, particularly those who say past fairs did not provide any lasting benefits.
Harcourt takes credit for negotiating a broad range of improvements for his city--new bridges, widened streets, an elevated rapid transit system, a computerized traffic control system.
"In addition," he said, "we came up with an acceptable use for the site after Expo ends in October . . . and I don't see the momentum slowing down. Vancouver will be the business, transportation and communication center on the West Coast." Others are dubious. Some see Expo as a missed opportunity to really develop Vancouver into a truly beautiful and livable city.