DATELINE: KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE

Greasing up the money-go-round

Jane O’Hara April 26 1982
DATELINE: KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE

Greasing up the money-go-round

Jane O’Hara April 26 1982

Greasing up the money-go-round

DATELINE: KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE

Jane O’Hara

Some cities are born great, others are made great, and still others have greatness thrust upon them. Such is the case in Knoxville, Tenn., and the town’s citizens are not sure they like it. Four years ago, when a group of bankers and local politicians decided it was time to put their sleepy Appalachian home town on the map, they came up with the idea of a world’s fair. In Knoxville? With a population of 183,000? Even the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) in Paris, which licensed and sanctioned it as a singletheme exposition, could be forgiven for scurrying to an atlas just to find out where Knoxville is.

Although few people seriously expected that it would rank in the pantheon of such great world’s fairs as Paris, New York, Brussels or Montreal’s Expo 67, the project managed to get under way through a combination of financial sleight-of-hand and political arm-twisting—despite protests from the local citizenry. Still, as the fair’s official symbol—an 80-m tower topped by a five-storey golden orb called the Sunsphere—rose from its foundations not far from the banks of the Tennessee River, not even it could break through the controversy that has clouded the event from its beginnings.

Boosters of the $100-million-plus mega-project, which has sprung up on 72 acres of “blighted land” in the heart of the city (62 businesses employing

1,377 people were bulldozed), have starrily suggested that Expo 82 will lure 11 million visitors to Knoxville during its six-month run following the May 1 opening. With energy the theme, Expo 82 will feature exhibits from 23 countries—including Canada—and a variety of amusements, including one of the world’s largest ferris wheels and comedian Bob Hope. All those visitors mean that a lot of hard cash will be spent on everything from biscuits and gravy to Davey Crockett caps. In short: it will be boom times for at least one recessionhit city in the Deep South.

Critics of the fair not only question the trickle-down economics to the community but fear that the main profits will line the pockets of a tightly knotted band of developers and bankers who have co-ordinated things from the start. They dread the influx of people and fear traffic bottlenecks and the onslaught on already overtaxed city services. They know that when the big top comes down they will be left footing the bills in higher taxes. Says concerned citizen Steve Taylor: “The mayor said he was going to take Knoxville kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but really we are being dragged back to the days of the robber barons.”

At the centre of the Knoxville storm is silver-haired Jake Butcher, a twotime loser in Tennessee’s gubernatorial races and the region’s largest banker. Butcher, who is no stranger to the spitand-whittle back rooms of Tennessee politics, got the money moving for the

world’s fair after paying a Washington visit on Bert Lance, who (before his resignation) was President Jimmy Carter’s budget director. Lance, of Georgia, and Butcher are friends from way back. Butcher once lent Lance $515,000 to acquire a controlling interest in the National Bank of Georgia, and he was also a generous contributor to Carter’s 1976 campaign. It was in Lance’s White House office that Butcher convinced him that Knoxville might be a good place to hold a world’s fair. The bug was later put in Carter’s ear, and within months the administration had obtained official certification for the fair from the BIE. Carter then freed up $12.4 million in federal seed grants, even though Knoxville was one of the least-needy candidates on the government’s long list of “distressed cities.”

Once Butcher had the presidential seal of approval, he parlayed his influence to various state and municipal bodies, who coughed up almost $80 million in public funds. But as the venture began to smell more and more like a bucket of a day-old fish, voices were raised in protest. In 1977 a group known as Citizens for a Better Knoxville got 14,000 signatures on a petition demanding a referendum after a poll showed that nearly 55 per cent of Knoxvilleans were against the world’s fair. City council managed to bystep that open manhole and a plebiscite was never held. When federal funds came under scrutiny, Senator Ernest (Fritz) Hollings of

South Carolina caused a few faces to redden in the august Senate chambers by describing the fair as a “political boondoggle.”

If anything, however, Butcher has been generous to his fellow silverspooned relatives and business associates. His brother-in-law, for example, was for a time a major investor in one of several new hotels, which have inflated their room rates as well as changed the Knoxville skyline. A handful of Butcher’s political and business cronies became involved in a $65-million hoteloffice complex adjoining the fair site which, with related projects, was partly paid for by public funds. The chief counsel for Butcher’s chain of 14 banks, including a number of United American Banks (UAB), is a partner in a new $6.7million parking garage, $6.3 million of which was publicly funded. Another UAB consultant, who was imprisoned in 1977 on 25 charges of bank fraud, was responsible for engineering the Byzantine private financing of the fair, along with Butcher’s brother-in-law and other UAB executives. Another company, managed by a UAB director, was appointed the chief construction management firm and handed out contracts to private developers—although the lowest bidder was not always selected. Said city council member Bernice O’Connor: “The fair is being used to help Butcher and his friends. He’s going to own Knoxville.”

Not surprisingly, this entrepreneurial spirit has filtered down to other sections of the community. Knoxville’s Karl Fellauer, a tall, gawky man with a balding, egg-shaped head, never really considered himself a businessman until he was struck with world’s fair fever.

Fellauer’s normal trade is making prosthetic limbs. His motto: “When you need a helping hand, or are on your last leg ... call me.” Like many Knoxvilleans, Fellauer was originally dead set against the world’s fair but at this point fully intends to investigate the possibility of opening a booth on the grounds to sell Tennessee artifacts and crafts. As he looks over the world’s fair site, crammed with prefabricated blue exhibition buildings and a new permanent exhibition hall that was originally called the Hall of States and Technology—not a particularly apt name since only five states have said they will participate—Fellauer explains his getrich-quick theory: “Now that it looks like it’s actually going to happen, I want a piece of the action.”

In the age-old tradition of rent-gouging, which raised storms of controversy at Montreal’s Expo 67, Knoxville landlords have evicted nearly 1,500 permanent tenants to free up rooms for fair visitors at grossly inflated prices. A derelict tobacco warehouse has been converted into 750 windowless cubicles, without baths or TV, which will rent for $66 a night, but most fair visitors will be accommodated at motels and lodges as far as 160 km from Knoxville.

What may prove to be most embarrassing, however, are the actual energy exhibits—the very raison d’être of the fair. The most glaring example is Expo 82’s showpiece, the $20.8-million U.S. pavilion, a six-storey cantilevered building flamboyantly designed to illustrate the fair’s theme: Energy Turns the World. Not only is the pavilion an energy guzzler—the latest in energy-conservation methods went by the boards because of cost—but last year a report

from the department of energy pointed out that it “could be a significant embarrassment to the United States.” The popular American sci-fi magazine Omni gave it a “Dim Bulb Medal” as one of the worst scientific achievements of 1981. The University of Tennessee, which borders the fair site, had originally wanted to use it after the fair but quickly lost interest when they discovered it would cost almost $8 million to redesign it for research and classroom use.

Although questions concerning the quality of other exhibits have been raised, many will undoubtedly be crowd drawers. The exhibit of the People’s Republic of China will include 20 twotonne bricks from the Great Wall. The Japanese will exhibit the latest in industrial robotics, and the Egyptians will display some magnificent museum pieces, including the chariot of pharaoh Ramses II. Critics are still shaking their heads, however, at the choice of Imelda Marcos, the wife of the Philippines’ dictator, as keynote speaker at an international think-tank symposium coinciding with the fair. Said critic Joe Dodd, an associate professor of political science at the University of Tennessee: “The water buffalo is still considered the state of the art in energy in the Philippines.”

The Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 world’s fair in Paris, still stands today as an example of engineering genius and human development. Organizers of Expo 82 are hoping their Sunsphere will do the same. More likely, though, it will tower over Knoxville as a monument to mismanagement, reminding citizens not so much of beauty but of the folly of blind economic growth. t;£>