Knoxville opens gates of World's Fair

Joseph Conte, his wife and their children, from Columbus, Ohio, walk quickly through the Canadian energy exhibit here at the World's Fair, which opened May 1 .

They whiz by the section on alternative energy, pausing only for an animated cartoon on saving energy.

Then they are back out in the sunlight, amidst an excited, curious crowd of couples of all ages, children anxious to get to the giant ferris wheel, mime clowns, vendors, and a young broom brigade - fair employees in green slacks and tan jackets, armed with brooms and long-handled dust pans.

Like many of the thousands of people flocking here from various parts of the US to see the culmination of years of local effort - and controversy - the Conte's were drawn by something other than the fair's energy theme.

''I can't go around the world,'' Mrs. Conte explains. ''It (the fair) is the nearest thing to going around the world. I hope it isn't all energy,'' she says, as the family heads off for other exhibits.

While some come to see technology, most others interviewed here show a keener interest in the international cultural aspects of the fair. Eager crowds, for example, swarm into the People's Republic of China exhibit, which features carved lacquer ware, some 20 large bricks from the Great Wall, and two life-size statues from the Xi'an tomb. The rush to the sales counter in the Chinese gift shop looks like bargain day at Macey's.

During the colorful and patriotic opening ceremonies, President Reagan spoke of how America's free enterprise system is meeting the US energy appetite. Nearby, however, local parking lots, some restaurants, and many motels and hotels for miles around were engaged in a bit of free-wheeling enterprise of their own: starting their first day of double, triple, or even higher prices for the duration of the fair.

''The merchants of this town are ready to gouge Americans,'' says one disgruntled local office worker of those taking advantage of the expected fair crowds.

But the opening ceremony cannon blasts, fireworks, release of thousands of brightly-colored baloons, and the numerous, polished and precise marching bands, seemed to outweigh any negative aspects of the fair.

Even the concern of some locals over who will pay the tab if attendence falls short and how visitor traffic will affect Knoxville seemed remote amidst the air of genuine expectancy and goodwill here.

''It's the world opening up,'' says Mrs. Ramsey Brock from Harlan, Kentucky. ''It's good relations with other countries, education - and fun.''

''We're excited about it,'' says a Knoxville man.

So is Rosella Williams, who moved here from Oregon to sell hot dogs at the fair. She was tired of her old job and wanted to try something different, so her brother invited her to come here and stay with him.

''I had a garage sale and sold everything I had accumulated for 30 years,'' she explains. Now she wants to earn enough to buy a pickup truck, she says with a smile as she wipes off the shining hot dog vendor cart she will push around the edge of the fairgrounds.

Her hot dogs sell for $1.25. A corner hot dog shop near the fair has raised its price from 49 cents to 90 cents. Most parking lots that charged $2 a day before the fair now charge $6. A modest, downtown motel that used to cost about official explains.

A former downtown office has been converted into rooms full of bunk beds and lockers, renting for $25 a night. And hundreds of area families have rented rooms - or, in some cases, their entire home - to visitors, charging from $23 a room somewhat distant from Knoxville to $300 or more a night in town.

Officials say lodging will be available throughout the six months of the fair. They suggest would-be visitors call ahead for reservations through one of the fair telephone numbers, including housing information (615-971-1000).

Some apartment owners have evicted longtime residents to make way for higher-paying fair visitors, a move that the city tried to stop but couldn't because of a court order allowing the evictions.

''I've been opposed to this (the fair) all along,'' one Knoxville senior citizen says as she stops to talk at a mailbox. Despite assurances from city and fair officials that Knoxville will not have to pay any fair costs, the city might be ''left holding the bag and will have to pay for it,'' she adds.

Fair officials point out that private loans are financing the structures on the fair site. The city has paid to develop some of the adjacent areas.

Jane Langford, a Knoxville resident, thinks the fair will bring a needed economic boost to the city. It means hundreds of jobs, and several hotels have been built.

''Knoxville has always been a kind of country town,'' she says, as she parks her car prior to walking to the fairgrounds. ''I think this will help us grow up.''

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