CANADA

Less challenge, more flash?

MALCOLM GRAY February 21 1983
CANADA

Less challenge, more flash?

MALCOLM GRAY February 21 1983

Less challenge, more flash?

BRITISH COLUMBIA

Expo 86, Vancouver’s chance to display the latest advances in transportation and communications, is in danger of becoming a $367-million Disneyland North instead of a world exhibition with the scope and flair of Montreal’s Expo 67—Canada’s last world’s fair. That, at least, was the parting assessment of Frank Mayrs, the former creative director of Expo 86 and the latest of four top executives to quit or be fired in the past two months. The exodus is the most recent crisis to hit a fair that had almost recovered from delays caused by last year’s haggling between Ottawa and Victoria over costsharing and is still four months behind schedule in its preparations for opening day, May 2,1986.

The man who is fielding most of the criticism about Expo 86 is Michael Bartlett, the fair’s new general manager, who helped build Canada’s Wonderland, a $120-million amusement park north of Toronto. Bartlett, who has applied for Canadian citizenship to forestall criticism about an American running a Canadian showpiece, has also with him two other former Wonderland executives as vice-presidents. But at the same time that the amusement park team was settling in, the fair’s interim general manager, Michael Burns, the vice-president of finance, the manager of special events and Mayrs were all leaving. The 49-year-old Mayrs, a career civil servant who had been on loan to

Expo for the past three years, is the only disgruntled departee to make public his disagreements with Bartlett. Mayrs charged that staff morale is low and that many still working on Expo share his views.

“It’s not because he [Bartlett] is an American but more the kind of American design he represents,” said Mayrs. The former director has worked on Canadian exhibitions at several world’s fairs, including Brussels in 1958, Expo 70 in Osaka and the United Nations Habitat conference on shelter in Vancouver in 1976. Now, instead of becoming an exciting, intellectually challenging environment, Mayrs fears that Expo 86 “will be designed for a family of vegetables, as in a theme park where everything is sanitized and safe, there’s total environmental control and the food is clean.” The dispute centres on the conflict between hucksterism and intellectualism, says Mayrs, who worries that Expo 86 will have more to do with entertainment than education. Another departed staff member who agreed with Mayrs’ criticisms explained: “For a number of reasons the fair wasn’t moving ahead fast enough, and the Expo 86 board panicked. They brought in these whiz-kids and, instead of telling them what to build and the philosophy behind the fair, they turned the whole thing over to them. I can guarantee that this fair won’t be a milestone like Expo 67, but I guarantee

you they will get it built on budget, on time, and it will be big and glitzy.”

Bartlett has been stung by the hucksterism charges. “I would say that Mr. Mayrs is a pseudointellectual at best,” he says. “Hucksterism would hardly characterize a management that emphasizes quality in all cases. The problem might be that Mr. Mayrs has a very purist, intellectual view of what the fair is all about, and I think that if his view had been followed through probably no one would have shown up.” Bartlett is offended by the suggestion that he is going to produce “Disneyland 86,” although he maintains that one way of building a great world’s fair is by following the Disney models and management techniques. That theory will be tested in May when Bartlett reveals the design site plan for the fair—Mayrs’ area before he was elbowed aside—but the first influence of the Magic Kingdom will be felt next month when Queen Elizabeth II visits Vancouver. Her Majesty will inaugurate a fair that will not be held for three years, in a stadium that will not be completed until June, as part of a publicity stunt designed by Bob Jani, a Disney consultant who lists this year’s Superbowl halftime show among his credits.

In 1986 the technology from some 30 countries will be on display on the 130acre fair site, giving Michael Bartlett three years to prove that he can produce something more than a glorified theme park. Frank Mayrs will not be part of that process, but his flag will still be flying: he designed the fair’s symbol of three interlocking circles (forming an 86) before he himself was run down the flagpole.

MALCOLM GRAY in Vancouver.