Late Friday afternoon, as the work week ends and the restaurants and cafés of the Warehouse District prepare for another night of music and laughter, a group of men and women will gather outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, unveil a commemorative plaque, then head to the food court at the nearby Riverwalk mall to toast one another and recall the highs and lows they shared 30 years ago while working on the 1984 world’s fair.
At the center will be Petr Spurney, the fair’s president and CEO and at one time a name of nearly radioactive intensity in New Orleans. Retired at 79 and living in Delaware, Spurney remembers the fair as “the best of times, the worst of times. On balance, it was more good than bad.”
He wants to come back to mingle again with his old employees, many of whom have kept in touch.
“These were good people,” he said recently. He sees them as “people who went through challenges, learned to get back up and keep going. It was a great team.”
Remarkably, the bronze plaque outside what was once the fair’s Great Hall will be the first and only physical acknowledgment that a world’s fair operated on the 82-acre site for six months before closing on Nov. 11, 1984.
In a state with a median age of 36, the fair is now effectively beyond living memory for half the people of Louisiana.
Yet in 1983 and 1984, its planning, execution, rise and fall dominated the civic agenda in New Orleans in a way the city would not see again until the Katrina recovery more than two decades later.
The $350 million enterprise was, in the short term, a public financial disaster so spectacular — the first world’s fair ever to go bankrupt — that no world’s fair has been attempted in the United States since then.
It ruined or damaged hundreds of contractors and subcontractors who helped build it, as well as small vendors who invested in its shops and stands.
Yet in many quarters, it is remembered fondly, for the verdict of history has three parts: a wonderful entertainment experience, an epic short-term financial disaster and a long-term economic development success.
On the ground, it was a whimsical mash-up of a show.
There were odd juxtapositions of technology — a steam locomotive, the space shuttle Enterprise, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn’s riverboat from the 1951 film “The African Queen.”
There was high art in Caravaggio’s “The Entombment of Christ” at the Vatican Pavilion. Low art in the bare-breasted mermaids guarding one of the fair’s massive pedestrian gates. Street art in the half-mile-long Wonderwall, a crazy frozen parade of multicolored façades, roof lines, doorways and ornaments that ran down the middle of what is now Convention Center Boulevard.
There were high-altitude thrills in the gondola ride that carried visitors between Algiers and the fair, 300 feet above the river. Performers in a breezy riverfront amphitheater or elsewhere ranged from Willie Nelson to Itzhak Perlman.
Twenty-five international exhibits introduced thousands to sushi (at the Japanese Pavilion) or an IMAX theater (the Canadian Pavilion). A 10-car monorail circulated overhead. A walk-though “Kid Wash” did for overheated humans what automated car washes do for cars.
There were nightly fireworks shows and dozens of places to eat and drink, with regular music-inspired silliness like the recurring mass “chicken dance” at a German beer garden.
New Orleanians flocked to it, loved it — just not in sufficient numbers to save it.
‘How beautiful it was’
A Times-Picayune poll taken at the end of the world’s fair revealed that two out of three adults in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes had passed through its gates.
Many purchased season passes that cost nearly $350 in today’s dollars. Some came back dozens of times.
Two polls separately concurred that a stunning 90 percent of visitors said they either liked it — or really, really liked it.
“Anybody who was there will tell you how beautiful it was,” said Imelda Bernard, who visited repeatedly with her late husband, Harold, and has a collection of souvenirs — glasses, cups, visors and whatnot — to show for it. “But we never got the national recognition.”
“It really should’ve taken off better than it did,” said Cathy Swann, who returned again and again with her 9-year-old son, Tim. “I’d pretend we were on vacation every weekend.”
Thirty years later, the consensus is that the fair, disastrous in the short run, catalyzed the revitalization of blocks of decrepit warehouses into today’s Warehouse District, a vibrant neighborhood of apartments, condos, restaurants, galleries and museums.
“Without the fair, you wouldn’t have had people knowing what was down here. How accessible it was. How interesting it was,” said Henry Lambert, who with a partner, Carey Bond, used the fair as a springboard to redevelop five old warehouses or factories into apartments and condominiums.
While the fair and the creation of a new convention center were conceived separately, they quickly became intertwined. The convention center became the fair’s Great Hall, its anchor. When the fair left, the already huge center expanded twice within a few years. Its ability to capture major conventions transformed the city’s economy, providing a partial buffer from the coming oil bust.
Moreover, the fair accelerated New Orleanians’ budding rediscovery of the Mississippi riverfront as a place of ease and beauty.
As the fair closed, the Audubon Nature Institute was looking for another project after the renovation of the Uptown zoo, said Ron Forman, Audubon’s president.
The fair helped point the institute toward its next success, the riverfront Aquarium of the Americas, which in turn would lead to Woldenberg Park.
“The reason New Orleans is where it is is because of the river. And the world’s fair renewed our contact with the river,” Forman said.
And finally, there was this: To help French Quarter merchants who lost customers during months of disruptive, fair-related street improvements, the city in 1984 launched the first French Quarter Festival, which that year drew a few hundred people.
Today, French Quarter Fest is a cultural and economic bonanza second only to Jazz Fest. This year, it attracted 562,000 people over four days in April.
A thousand cuts
Consider the paradox of Mark Romig.
Romig today is the president of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. Thirty years ago, at 26, he was Spurney’s man to squire VIPs around the site.
On his wall is a framed check for $2.84, issued on authority of a bankruptcy court in 1990, years after the fair closed.
It represents his last five weeks of pay.
With the fair’s finances spiraling downward, Spurney laid off hundreds of staffers, even as the fair continued.
Romig asked to stay, working only for benefits, he said.
“Best job I ever had,” he said. “The world was in New Orleans, and it was just very special.”
Indeed, Romig helped organize Friday’s homecoming, and he remains in close touch with Spurney and his family. They speak fondly of each other.
The problem was that, notwithstanding Romig’s observation, from May to November of 1984, the world was not coming to New Orleans.
In the autopsies that followed the fair’s failure, creditors, lawyers, businessmen, showmen and journalists cited a number of wounds that contributed to its death:
- It followed too closely the Knoxville, Tennessee, world’s fair of 1982 and was too close to the on-the-horizon Vancouver, British Columbia, fair of 1986.
- The federal government, suddenly in the grip of Reaganomics, proved to be a stingy public partner.
- And City Hall, in the hands of strong-willed Ernest “Dutch” Morial, the city’s first African-American mayor, began to clash with the fair’s largely white corporate backers over the distribution of fair contracts and jobs. The bankruptcy court later described City Hall as “an ambivalent host.”
The fatal projection
But more than anything else, the fair’s fatal flaw was a lethally defective projection by entertainment consultant Harrison Price, made years before it opened, that the fair should be scaled to entertain 12 million visitors, or 60,000 to 70,000 people a day.
In fact, about 7 million came, mostly from Louisiana and Mississippi. On some days in deep summer, only 12,000 and 13,000 came.
There would be no recovery from that.
Well before the fair opened, it hemorrhaged bad press.
Advance ticket and tour sales were so poor the fair burned through its $55 million line of credit five months before opening.
In April, a month before opening, it needed a $10 million loan from the Legislature.
In June, three weeks after it opened, Morial seized the fair’s bank accounts for nonpayment of taxes.
Three weeks later, state officials consented to another $17.5 million bailout. They kept Spurney nominally in charge but turned management over to their own people.
In September, a major bank declared the fair in default and called in loan guarantees from dozens of backers.
In November, a week before closing, the fair toppled into bankruptcy, declaring that it owed $98 million to 867 creditors.
“I can only say that had this been a public undertaking, a number of people would have gone to the penitentiary. There would have been lynchings, hangings,” then-Gov. Edwin Edwards said near the fair’s close.
Ten years later, and four years after the bankruptcy finally was resolved, Peter Hagan sifted carefully through the wreckage for a Tulane University master’s thesis. His conclusion: The fair lost $89 million.
After corporate sponsors coughed up their loan guarantees, Hagan estimated the losses to employees and construction contractors and subcontractors settled out at something between $40 million and $50 million.
Ghosts of the fair
In the days after the fair closed, the exhibits were dismantled, converted or dispersed.
The International Riverfront became a cruise ship terminal and the site of the Riverwalk mall.
The monorail circulates today at the Miami zoo.
Until they were given away two years ago, two gondola cars served as playground attractions at John Curtis Christian School.
Aluminum trees that were once part of the Wonderwall are visible across Bayou St. John in a private backyard on Park Island.
The Caravaggio painting went back to the Vatican, but sculptor Ivan Mestrovic’s bronze figures of Christ and the woman at the well left the Vatican Pavilion and stand today in front of Notre Dame Seminary on South Carrollton Avenue.
Spurney dropped out of public view but stayed around for three years, dealing with the fallout of the bankruptcy and dozens of lawsuits that followed the collapse.
Legislative audits cleared the fair’s leadership of any wrongdoing, and Spurney prevailed in all of the litigation against him.
Still, “my career took a major setback. I didn’t have a job when I left,” he said.
In time, he said, he caught on as a management consultant to a French fireworks firm.
Later, Spurney formed a museum development business with his son, but the recession of 2008 killed two major projects.
He said he is retired now.
In conversation, Spurney sounds remarkably unembittered about his seven years in New Orleans. He has returned several times, keeps in touch with old fair colleagues and does not consider himself an exile.
“New Orleans is a terrific city,” he said. “I was able to totally immerse myself in the community; I did everything and a lot more. I rode in parades; I went to balls.”
Yet he said he learned there was a “New Orleans way” of doing business.
Without citing names, he said he was offered kickbacks in return for granting concessions.
“To do things in New Orleans is challenging,” he said.
A bill for the shuttle
He acknowledges, too, that whatever the difficulties of the public climate, it was a private-sector error, the wildly flawed attendance projection, that doomed the fair four years before it opened. “That was the key failure as far as the financial success or failure of the fair,” he said.
That said, he also lays some responsibility at the foot of the fair’s public partners, particularly the city and the federal government.
The federal government under President Ronald Reagan slashed the expected U.S. participation in the New Orleans event to $10 million, less than half of its contribution to the Knoxville fair. And in order to protect Knoxville, the government waited until 1982 — perilously late — to invite international exhibitors.
“They sent us a bill to bring down the space shuttle,” Spurney said.
Reagan himself declined the fair’s invitation to open the event. “That’s worth hundreds of thousands in attendance,” Spurney said.
But he said Morial’s decision to seize the fair’s bank accounts in early June, barely two weeks after the fair opened, was his worst moment.
“When the public-private partnership failed, that’s the day the fair failed. And that was the day that Dutch Morial seized our bank accounts,” Spurney said.
“You ask me what was the lowest point — that was the lowest point, the day the mayor seized our accounts.”
But at the end of the day, “Look, Petr Spurney gets the blame. The buck stopped with me. I’m not here saying Dutch did it, or Edwin did it. I did it.”
He said he is still sensitive to the losses that so many companies and individuals suffered. “It really upsets me. It should not have been.”
Still, Spurney said he looks forward to seeing his old employees again. He does not remember his experience in New Orleans as a scar. Nor, he said, does his family.
“I’ve had a terrific life. I’m a very happy camper.
“I know what it means to miss New Orleans.”