by Martha Rose Woodward
Twenty-nine years ago the city of Knoxville resembled a bee hive a buzz with activity. One question loomed large in everyone’s mind, “Would the city be ready to host the World’s Fair that was set to begin on May l, 1982?” Those who remember those times say that if felt like the city was holding its breath as carpenters, painters, architects, truck drivers, landscapers, engineers, entrepreneurs, cashiers, ride attendants, secretaries, delivery men, cooks, writers, attorneys, city leaders, and many more worked day and night in preparations.
History tells us that we were ready, but barely, from May 1 through October 31, 1982, as we hosted the world’s fair based on the theme “Energy Turns the World.” Expo ’82 was the first world’s fair to be held in the southeastern United States in 97 years, hosting 22 countries and more than 11 million people. Once referred to as the “scruffy little city by the Tennessee River,” Knoxville provided one big party for people to visit from all over to witness the live entertainment, parades, displays, exhibits, musical and sporting events, food, costumes, rides, games, and arcades. The news reports of the day declared the “World Came to Knoxville” as it hosted the official international exposition, fully licensed and sanctioned by the Bureau des Expositions Internationales in Paris, France.
After a festive opening ceremony full of colorful pageantry that included introductions of the members of the Knoxville International Energy Exposition, locally known as KIEE. The dignitaries, politicians, dancers, and singers were also introduced as U.S. jets flew over the fair site to make it official. Everyone settled in for performances by choirs, bands, and a presentation by the military.
The highlight of the day was the keynote address given by President Ronald Reagan on the subject of energy. Reagan began his speech by saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen, our Governor, Senator Baker, your Congressman, members of our Cabinet, and a good friend of mine and loyal Tennessean, Dinah Shore, it is a pleasure for me to be here this afternoon in the shadow the the Sunsphere, a symbol of energy potential, near the banks of the Tennessee River, whose force we have tapped for centuries.”
Plenty to do, plenty to see, plenty of places to go, plenty to eat and plenty of entertainment—all to be expected in an event of this sort and Knoxville did not disappoint.
By all accounts the fair was a success having over 11 million visitors and providing the much needed 5,000 jobs that kept this area from suffering from the worst of the recession being felt throughout the country. The debt of $30 million in loans secured in order to produce the fair were repaid to 43 banks. The city bonds taken out to pay for the fair were repaid in full in 2009. Twenty-two countries participated in the fair—more than took part in the fairs in Seattle, San Antonio, or Spokane.
A blighted downtown area was completely revitalized. $225 million in highway improvements were completed. Several historic buildings were saved and continue to be in use until this date. Some people made a fortune and most people had fun, but all in all, the city came together working towards a project that may go down in history as the finest hour in its history.
My book, Knoxville’s 1982 World’s Fair published in 2009 can by purchased at Amazon.com or from the publisher’s Arcadia Publishing. www.arcadiapublishing.com