President Trump signs bill that helps Minnesota World’s Fair

An interview with Mark Ritchie

By Steve LeBeau
Tue, 2017-05-09 11:11

Minnesota is on more equal footing today with Argentina and Brazil in the competition to land a World’s Fair in 2023. That’s because on Monday, May 8, President Donald Trump signed a bill that authorizes the U.S. to rejoin the intergovernmental organization that oversees World Expos – the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE). The bill is H.R. 534, the “U.S. Wants to Compete for a World Expo Act.”

This is excellent news for Mark Ritchie, Minnesota’s former secretary of state who heads the effort to make EXPO 2023 a reality. The U.S. lost its membership in BIE in 2001 after Congress refused to pay the dues. It is virtually impossible to be approved for an expo if your country is not a member of the BIE.

In June Ritchie will head to Paris, the headquarters of the BIE, to attend a general assembly. The members of the BIE will make their final decision on November 22. If Minnesota is chosen as the site for a world’s fair, it could attract more than 10 million tourists to the state.

Minnesota Business talked with Ritchie about the status of the effort for Expo23, and its theme, “Wellness and Well Being for All.”

MNBIZ: You put a lot of work into getting past this roadblock – the U.S. not being a member of the international body that chooses the sites for the world’s fairs.
Ritchie: Yes, it was long and difficult slog. There are many, many steps to signing a bill, but we are super excited that it finally happened after all these many years. And we had really strong support from both sides of the aisle, the White House, the Commerce Department, and the State Department. It took everything and everybody to put it all together, but it worked. So, we're very happy.

MNBIZ: Tell me about your attendance at the BIE’s general assembly in Paris in June.
Ritchie: This is just the start because we haven't been a member for a really long time. In fact, we won't be a member until there's a couple more steps that have to take place; the State Department has to do a lot of particular paperwork.

In any case, we will be part of the organization going forward. The Bureau of International Expositions has a general assembly twice a year. All of the 168, soon to be 169, member countries send delegates. At those meetings things like preliminary decisions on bidding, on themes, on location, and that kind of thing.

So over the next month and a half we'll be preparing to make an argument for a Minnesota expo, and we’ll also organize a reception at the US Embassy to celebration the U.S. rejoining BIE.

Then in the summer and fall we'll be working with all the different governments to secure their support. Once that's completed, there'll be a vote on November 22.

MNBIZ: You do have a lot of steps to make before that deadline, but just as in athletics, if you lose that focus, then you might slip.
Ritchie: Yes. In this case, there's a lot of learning. It's been, 1982 Chicago, that was the last time anyone has done this. So there's very few people still alive who were leaders, or active, and we've been in touch with them. They've given us great assistance. Basically, we're having to learn many things over. The law in the U.S. requires an expo to be a private initiative, and that entity, in this case it's the Minnesota World's Fair Bid Committee has to submit its proposal. There is a long list of U.S. regulations to follow. I think there are 15 chapters defined in law.

So you create that application. It goes to commerce. Commerce then has to review it, and then make a recommendation, yay or nay to the president. Ultimately, then the President has to decide.

All of the skills and staffing expertise for something like this have been dormant or gone for a long time. We've slowly, but surely, built up all the capacity and it really showed when we were all working hard to make sure that legislation passed.

MNBIZ: It's remarkable that this has been a bipartisan effort. That's unusual. Also, given the current nationalistic climate, here we are embracing the world.
Ritchie: Yes. In the president's speech to Congress two months ago, he ended it with a very long, very interesting little riff about world's fairs and the importance of the fairs as a place for innovation and new visions of the future introduced. He specifically references the big one that had been in Philadelphia on the nation's 100th birthday, and talks about it quite a bit.

There's a kind of excitement, especially if you've been to a World's Fair of some kind, that has put a lot of spirit into people's work to revive this within our own country. Of course, World's Fairs go on every couple of years outside the Unites States, and we always have pavilions; the U.S. pavilions are typically the most visited. I think that was true in Shanghai and Milan.

But we've been unable to hold them in the United States, so there's a dwindling number of people who've had a direct experience here. It's one of the elements of having this larger conversation where the U.S. is now rejoined as a member, and this will allow others, like Houston very interested in organizing one of the larger six month big World's Fairs. San Francisco, Los Angeles has talked about it, Philadelphia.

This one has a Minnesota focus for sure. It was led by Congresswoman McCollum, and Congressman Emmer. The long term implication is that any other city any place in the country can now have the right to bid. That was not possible before.

MNBIZ: This must be a new effort for you to work on so many huge things one step after another. What's it like?
Ritchie: The thing that's been important is that I had my own personal experience as a 12 year old visiting the New York's World's Fair, and being just completely stimulated by seeing an amazing world. There were driverless cars, and there were video telephones, and there were guys with little rockets on their backs jetting around. This experience made me realize that it was a big world out there and maybe I should buckle down and crack some books and pay attention in school more. Four years later I was at Iowa State in biochemistry and biophysics.

So when somebody asked me if I would be interested in being part of a process to bring a world’s fair here, one of the things that came to my mind was yes, this is something that young people in the United States, and young people everywhere should have an opportunity to benefit from.

Also, I didn't know what it would take. So I had to do a lot of research to see if this was this possible. The conclusion was the important thing, was yes it's possible to reverse this decision and get the US to rejoin the organization. Yes, that's possible. It's not guaranteed, it's not easy, you wouldn't bet the farm on it, it's possible. We proved yesterday that it was both possible and we made it happen.

Can we convince the 168 other countries that -- although we're coming really late to the game -- that we have a great team and a great capacity. Yes, it's possible.

A friend of mine said it's a little bit like having a family and raising kids. If you knew everything about what that would entail, you might make some different decisions. But if you knew everything about what it would take to get the United States back into this international body, and to prepare a bid, and to win over 168 countries, you might not tackle it. But if you take the first step, and then the second step, and the third step, pretty soon you find yourself at the door steps of this great opportunity for our state, our region, our country. And you look back and say, “Oh, that was a lot of work; glad I'm here. Then you look forward and say, “Oh, I've got more work to do let's get going.”

That's kind of where we are now.

MNBIZ: Is the theme, “Wellness and Well Being for All” based on the strength of Minnesota’s medical device industry and health care industry?
Ritchie: Well it's interesting, it has two components. If you're really interested in the weeds here. Turkey made a bid to host a very large expo on health for all and they included Dan Beuttner and Blue Zone people from here. The head of that delegation gave an eloquent speech to an international symposium on why health is the single most important global issue, and why it's so important for there to be a World's Fair on health, etc. Turkey lost, I think lost by two votes, so it didn't happen.

So we knew that this was a very high priority theme that no one had ever tackled. But that's alongside of the other factor, which is you do want to recruit the other 168 countries to come because they are interested in your theme.

That's true. You also want a theme that's identified with your region. What's important about our region is that we are very broadly, and very comprehensively identified with health and wellness. Everything from being the birthplace of the medical device industry, and the birthplace of the new 3D elements of medicine, plus the Mayo Clinic and other hospitals. Those things are right alongside of being ground zero for being the most fit in world and the top biking place in the country. The number one in parks, number one in public health. We have the Penny George Institute of Health and Wellness, the largest provider of integrated medicine on the planet.

We have lots of elements of self-help, such as yoga. We have aspects of global center of excellence in innovation in many different parts of broadly defined health and wellness, or healing and medicine. So we can brag about, and show off, and be proud, and very non-Minnesotan in how we put a spotlight on many of these things that are from the full spectrum of the highest tech on the planet to the most individual element of just exercise and walking. And we are very aware of, and very welcoming of learning from and being part of the larger global conversation, whether it's about the global diabetes crisis or the Zika crisis.

We have this understanding that we all do better when we all do better, which Paul Wellstone famously said. This combination of knowing that this is a topic of very high interest to the rest of the world, and Minnesota as a world leader in thinking and in doing and in health care just makes it a perfect fit. We believe that'll be important to pulling off a win.

MNBIZ: Six years from now, I'll bet they haven't even invented the technology that will be shown off. Artificial intelligence and everything else.
Ritchie: Exactly. All the genetic stuff that we know now. The ability to 3D print, and human tissue, and human cells. I think this is one of the challenges. You can say with certainty, okay we'll have driverless buses, and driverless cars. But then there are those things that we can't even imagine now that aren't really in the realm of science fiction. But they’re not in our popular imagination. Like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or some of the other science fiction.

The ability of something like Google Glass to make it possible to go to World's Fair with people from 200 countries, with 200 languages and speak to somebody and they can see, hear or read your words in their language. They can respond to you in their language. And you can see, hear, or read what they said back in your language. That is in the works. That isn't science fiction any longer.

The things that we see now with artificial organs, and special developments with big data, to understand more precisely how certain treatments can be targeted -- they are just things that are evolving. Luckily, a number of the Minnesota companies are in the creation part of that cycle, so we can tap their expertise to make sure that we're thinking as far out in front as we can. And we are humble enough to say, what'll really be hot in 2023 is something that we don't know about yet, and we can't imagine, but we need to be constantly learning and looking and talking to people all over the planet, because it'll come from some place that we didn't imagine. We'll want it to be front and center.

Here's another thing. They're talking about somebody going to Mars by 2023. What will it take to maintain health and wellness on people traveling, and living on Mars, and coming back? What might an exhibit, or display that asks those questions uncover? How might that stimulate younger people who are visionaries and think about how Mars? How can I be part of that process?

There's things that we can know are likely to be in the media and the world and the consciousness of people and we can try to see how might that fit in an international exhibition on health and wellness.