Chicago — It was to have been a magnificent $1 billion party -- all geared to the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America. But parties need people. And the recent decision to scrap the 1992 Chicago World's Fair raises the broader question of whether or not the basic concept is still viable.
True, the Los Angeles Olympics (a project similar in scope) was a success. But skeptics say it had the built-in advantage of a ready audience of sports enthusiasts. Disneyland and Epcot Center pack people on a daily basis, but such enterprises are permanent fixtures and are the result of accumulated expertise.
In the final analysis, Illinois officials decided the proposed Chicago World's Fair just would not draw enough people and businesses to justify its enormous expense. Some studies said the Windy City's fair could lose $350 million.
It wasn't hard for officials to believe such figures.
Canadians, after all, are still paying off debts on the successful 1967 Montreal Expo. And the most recent world's fair, held in New Orleans last year, attracted only 60 percent of the number expected and took a $120 million loss.
``The route Chicago was going was like trying to build Disney World and put all the capital in and recover the benefits in the course of one summer,'' says Stanley Hallett of Northwestern University's Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research.
In recent years world's fairs held in the US also have been getting less federal financial help than in years past. There also seems to be less novelty. ``People just aren't as entranced with the idea as they were 60 to 100 years ago -- it's not that unusual anymore,'' says E. James Peters, associate editor of the American Planning Association's monthly magazine.
Mr. Peters, who has studied past fairs and expositions, notes that Paris pulled out of its 1989 fair commitment and that there has even been talk of canceling Vancouver's world's fair, slated to open next year.
Officials in Miami and Los Angeles have shown interest in filling in for Chicago in 1992. But, says one Chicago skeptic, ``I haven't seen anybody yet with pen and checkbook in hand.''
Chicago, the scene of two world's fairs during the last century, had fought long and hard to gain the honor two years ago from the Paris-based Bureau of International Expositions. It was to be a dual-city event, with European festivities held in Seville, Spain, Columbus's home port.
The decision to abandon the Chicago celebration was not made lightly. More than five years of discussion -- initiated by local business leaders -- and $6 million in state taxpayer money had already gone into the planning. Experts say it probably qualifies as one of the most thoroughly studied projects of its kind.
But it was not only the high cost that scuttled the fair. There has been ample criticism of the managerial style of fair organizers.
There was also opposition to the proposed site of the fair, on Burnham Harbor along Lake Michigan, unquestionably one of the city's most beautiful spots -- also public land.
A shortage, too, of private contributions and Chicago city funds played a major role in the fair's demise.
Others blame Mayor Harold Washington.
But as the mayor said in an interview some weeks ago: ``It's not the responsibility of the purchaser of a car to sell himself the car -- you let the salesman sell it. We will let the facts speak for themselves.''