Most used-car salesmen are born with silver tongues. Jimmy Pattison’s is platinum.
Maybe it’s his background as a General Motors dealer in Vancouver’s East End that allows the Expo 86 chairman to sustain his optimism in the face of union troubles, threats of pullouts by exhibitors and reports of the fiscal swamp into which the New Orleans World’s Fair sank last year.
“Everything is tight but on schedule,” he told me recently as we toured the False Creek site aboard his 85-foot motor yacht, Nova Springs. “Our original objective was to sign up 20 countries, and we’ve got 33. We’re planning total investments of $1.5 billion and we’re right on budget. Including the lottery money we’re getting and tax revenues from expected visitors, the fair will come pretty close to breaking even when the smoke clears. There should be no loss of public funds.”
The rosy Pattison outlook is based on his hope that three unpredictable factors will each tilt his way between May and October, 1986: the weather; the bargain value of the Canadian dollar to visitors from south of the border; and the general state of the Canadian economy.
Vancouver’s usual quota of summer downpours, a significantly strengthened exchange rate or a recession could mean disaster. But Pattison refuses to be discouraged. “If we have a summer like we did last year,” he contends, “a reasonable economy and the Canadian dollar within the 80-cent range, we should do 14 million visitors, which is our target, though our surveys show we could have 18 million.”
The most recent world’s fair, held last summer in New Orleans, based its revenue forecasts on attendance surveys predicting attendance of 11 million; fewer than seven million showed up, and the Louisiana fiasco has left behind as much as $200 million in unpaid bills. Pattison has yet to revise his estimates downward but, wary of the New Orleans precedent, he has quietly sent the figures back for “further study.”
B.C. Premier Bill Bennett’s strategy in picking the Expo 86 site for his confrontation with organized labor has triggered most of the fair’s lousy publicity, but even if the anger hasn’t subsided work schedules are now being met. There are so many cranes on the site that seagulls have to maintain holding
patterns before landing. The provincial government’s designation of Expo 86 as an economic development zone has allowed Pattison to cancel automatically any contract held up by more than three consecutive days of walkouts. “The fair’s going to be built on time. That’s a given,” he growls, letting slip flashes of his innate toughness. “I spend a lot of time on the site talking to the workers, and they all want to work. Their leaders have a different view, because they’re very much against what the B.C.
government stands for.”
The deadline for pavilions is now only two months away and, as well as the 33 foreign buildings, six Canadian provinces, two U.S. states and 14 corporations have signed definite commitments. One enduring benefit that preceding fairs have lacked is that most of the structures are being erected as modules so they can be moved to outlying B.C. communities after the festivities are done to serve as hospitals, schools and community centres. On the site itself, $3 billion worth of housing
and office buildings will eventually blossom, so very little of Expo 86’s massive infrastructure will be wasted.
It is impossible to estimate accurately how much revenue the fair will bring to British Columbia, but one guess is that visitors will spend about $2.4 billion and the fair itself will have created 20,000 jobs with overall benefits to the Canadian economy totalling about $4 billion. Vancouver businesses of every size and description are gearing up for the expected bonanza. Bob Jolley, for example, runs Cassidy’s Yacht Quarters, which owns a marina facing the fair grounds; he plans to rent out yachts averaging 50 feet long as floating corporate hostels for visiting executives. The price tag is $200,000 for the fair’s duration—but that includes a resident steward.
Pattison himself is keeping up a crippling schedule, with early mornings as well as most Saturdays and Sundays spent on his own corporate deal-making and the rest of the time devoted to Expo affairs. The sales from his herd of private companies—handling everything from recreational vehicles to Ripley’s Believe It or Not—hit close to $1 billion in 1984, and Jimmy has no shareholders except himself.
He has recently repurchased one of the two corporate jets he gave up when the recession set in, and has started flying first class again on his weekend journeys to inspect the finance company he owns in Switzerland. “I go to Switzerland Friday nights,” he explains, as if he were describing a trip to the local bowling alley. “Get on Lufthansa in Vancouver at 6:15 and arrive in Frankfurt Saturday afternoon. I fly to Geneva, have my meeting on Sunday and Monday morning, then catch the 4:20 out of Frankfurt. I’m back home for a late dinner and lose only one Vancouver working day.”
For the moment, Pattison’s energy is directed toward making Expo 86 a success, even though no one can really get a grip on how much is being spent or what the eventual revenues will be. The paramount question is whether the predicted 14 million visitors will materialize. The comparison is not altogether valid, but it took the domed B.C. Place Stadium more than six months to sell only one million tickets—and they had to recruit Billy Graham for eight days to reach the magic number.
But if Expo 86 barrels through in triumph, Pattison’s platinum tongue will deserve to be declared a national monument.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.