A small group of business and development leaders quietly are launching an ambitious effort to transform five miles of the Valley's most blighted area into the home of a World's Fair in 2008.
The fair backers pitch the idea as a way to bring international attention to Phoenix in what would be the first U.S. World's Fair since 1984.
And they say it has the potential to reshape the Valley's landscape and image, just as World's Fairs have given Paris the Eiffel Tower, Seattle the Space Needle and San Antonio the River Walk.
The project is envisioned to replace 2,300 acres of landfills, industrial sites, vacant land and substandard housing that straddles the Salt River from 32nd Street to 19th Avenue.
Group chairman Ed Crosby said the effort is too new to have a defining monument or even a theme. But his nonprofit Rio Salado Community Development Foundation has just launched its second phase of research to see if the event is viable.
"You have to do something to get people to pay attention to the area because it's so blighted," Crosby said.
The group already has spent $300,000 to research the fair and hire consultants. It's kicking off a drive to raise as much money for more research to confirm initial findings that the idea will work, Crosby said.
Getting it off the ground will prove costly: A half-billion dollars to buy land and as much to build 2.5 million square feet of exhibit space.
Private investors will pay the bill, said Crosby, who is involved with investment ventures and is head of Pueblo Rio Development, LLC, which would have a role in the deals. His nonprofit foundation has a board of directors that includes James Elmore, a former dean of architecture at Arizona State University whose students came up with ideas that eventually led to Tempe Town Lake.
Crosby has spent two years pitching the idea to businesses and others. His expectation is the event would draw 25 million tourists in roughly six months. In the same area, Phoenix has just spent $85 million to restore the river. Once the fair is over, most buildings would remain and become museums, research labs, buildings tied to the state's universities or other commercial developments. He suggests the ground could house bioscience firms that he expects will flock to Arizona since the recent deal to bring a major bioscience research center to Phoenix.
The land might take decades to develop, but could grow to 11 million square feet and include 9,500 high-density housing units.
"It will be the biggest thing this state has ever had," Crosby said.
Event consultant Paul Creighton of Washington state said a Phoenix fair offers promise. Creighton, who has worked with several World's Fairs since the 1960s and other smaller events, helped ASU architecture students develop a planning study of the concept.
"Phoenix needs to make some signals to the rest of the world and the rest of the country. It's a big city and it kind of gets hidden compared to other cities of its size," he said.
Since London held the first World's Fair in 1851 until World War II, fairs captured the public's imagination with futuristic exhibits and marvels such as steam engines, television and video phones. Cities since at least the 1960s have used fairs to boost their image and revitalize blighted urban areas.
But more recent fairs in the United States have found less enthusiasm and often failed to live up to promises of urban transformation or international prestige, said history professor John Findlay of the University of Washington in Seattle.
His community's 1962 World's Fair was promoted as a way to help the downtown compete against the suburbs, but the event was a mile from the city's center and offered limited benefits there, Findlay said.
"The (World's Fair) model as an economic tool and redevelopment tool has come into question in the U.S. in the last three decades," Findlay said.
Knoxville, Tenn., hoped to transform a blighted area near downtown with its 1982 World's Fair, said history professor William Bruce Wheeler of the University of Tennessee.
Two decades later, redevelopment didn't meet bold promises, Wheeler said. The site is a park with a recently built convention center, but Wheeler said many surrounding businesses lost money and new business investment is minimal.
"The legacy, unfortunately, I think was fairly minimal," Wheeler said.