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Expo '86: It Was Great Fun but It Didn't Fulfill Hopes for Economy

October 27, 1986|KENNETH FREED | Times Staff Writer

VANCOUVER, Canada — It was quite a party, six months of everything from opera to Czech food. Expo '86, Canada's latest world fair, is over, and people here wonder if what they feel is satisfaction or a hangover.

The fair, which closed two weeks ago, was the child of William Bennett, the former premier of British Columbia, who predicted that it would rejuvenate the province's tottering economy with increased tourism and turn Western Canada into an international center of finance, trade and high technology.

Another clear but unspoken goal for Bennett was to parlay Expo into political advantage for his conservative Social Credit Party, which had been losing support for failing to overcome an economic recession with an unemployment rate of more than 12%.

Although Expo's backers still defend the massive project, which cost an estimated $1.2 billion and is likely to have incurred a deficit of about $230 million, the expections of many people are falling about as fast as the prefabricated buildings that housed the exhibits.

"I've always said Expo would be a burp in the history of Vancouver," said Mayor Mike Harcourt, an erstwhile critic who ultimately sold his support for millions of dollars in city improvements but now finds the fair almost inconsequential.

"Nobody likes to see a party end," he continued, "but now we have to look to the future, and not the last six months."

Still, Expo's organizers, some local businessmen and the Socreds, as members of the Social Credit Party are called, want to do some bragging.

On the surface, they have reason to do so. More than 22 million people paid to see the pavilions put up by 32 countries, three American states and 11 Canadian provinces and territories.

The six months of the fair passed almost without problems, and surveys of people who attended reflect great enthusiasm.

The fair's official theme was transportation and communications, but the entertainment ranged from Soviet ballet companies to La Scala opera company of Milan to TV actor and comedian Howie Mandel. There were 3-D movies, spectacular roller coasters, a 1,000-foot free-fall in a large bucket and food from around the world.

"It was a good show," Expo spokeswoman Gail Fliton said. "It was successful. At least the people of Vancouver thought so, since 340,000 came down for the last day, just to say goodby."

And after Bennett unexpectedly retired as premier, his Socred successor, William Vander Zalm, called new elections on the basis of what polls indicatUnfulfilleded was the party's increased popularity arising out of Expo.

Another winner was Jimmy Pattison, the self-made millionaire who headed the Expo effort, running it for a salary of $1 a year.

Despite the salary, which he says he never collected, Pattison came out all right. According to press accounts, several firms owned by the Expo president won lucrative fair contracts, including work for neon signs and the official Expo guide.

Details of these deals are cloudy because Pattison, who runs his own affairs on the expressed theory that what he does is nobody's business, ran Expo on the same principle, even though as a government corporation Expo is legally bound to disclose all operations.

Expo is 18 months late in publishing one of its scheduled financial reports, much less the final figures. So no one knows for sure exactly how much money was spent, how much was taken in and how much is owed. Whatever the figures, Pattison has said, the deficit will be paid off from the proceeds of a lottery that otherwise would have gone to public education.

Almost No Outcry

There has been almost no outcry against any of this, largely because a deficit was built into Expo's planning. In fact, the final deficit will in all likelihood be far lower than the originally estimated shortfall of $300 million. Pattison deliberately underestimated the number of paying visitors by nearly 10 million, according to a city official.

Still, if there is no real controversy over the way that Expo was run, there is serious debate about the impact it has had, or will have, on Vancouver and British Columbia.

According to Mayor Harcourt, who is leaving office this month for a seat in the provincial legislature, the most positive aspects of the fair will be the bridges, buses and other municipal improvements, and the use of the fairgrounds for urban development.

However, he said in an interview, most of the claimed benefits in terms of increased international investment and tourism would have come about anyway.

"Most of the growth was already under way before the fair was planned," Harcourt said. "At best, Expo merely accelerated the trend. . . . Vancouver already generated 67,000 of the latest 86,000 jobs created in B.C. . . . It is a tacky attitude to assume that a six-month fair will drive the economy."

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