When Mega-Events Make Sense

Political conventions are a security headache. The Olympics are an infrastructure spending bust. What giant civic gatherings really deliver the best return on investment?

July 28, 2016

By: The Atlantic CityLab

Political conventions are a security headache. The Olympics are an infrastructure spending bust. What giant civic gatherings really deliver the best return on investment?

The Cleveland 2016 Host Committee projected that last week’s Republican National Convention would bring in $200 million in direct spending to the Ohio metro. The Dems estimate their gathering this week will hand over $350 million in economic benefits to Philadelphia.

Sounds like a good deal, but such promises often go undelivered. What kind of civic blow-out offers the best return on investment? We asked some mega-event experts to scope out the windfalls and pitfalls of hosting large-scale urban gatherings. . . [Urban & Regional Planning Professor Mark Wilson, also head of the MSU Mega Event Planning Group, comments on the pros and cons of World's Fairs below.]

World’s fairs

PROS: You might not have heard much about these monorail-intensive, nation-branding orgies since Expo 86 in Vancouver, which was the last world’s fair held in North America. In the U.S., Congress banned the use of federal funds to support world's fairs in 1999. But on other continents, the Expos keep on coming—Shanghai’s über-elaborate production in 2010 was the most attended in history. They share some the same upsides as an Olympics, with the added benefit of long duration and more flexible infrastructure. See: Paris’ Eiffel Tower, Montreal’s Habitat 67, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. For many cities, particularly in Asia, holding a fair is a way of emerging onto the world stage, according to Mark Wilson, who heads the Mega-Event Planning Group at Michigan State University and advises cities that bid to host Expos.

CONS: “The pitfalls for world’s fairs aren’t the wasteful white elephants of infrastructure, though they do happen,” says Wilson. “It’s distorting your city to host it.” As with the Olympics, cities often plan for world’s fairs as an end in themselves, bending investment to support the event rather using the fair as a means to benefit the city in the long term, as Montreal successfully did in 1967. Also, economic and political crises can arise in the multi-year lag between the city’s bid and the actual event, and they can be magnets for all manner of violent protest.

UPSHOT: Plan carefully, proceed with caution.

RATING: 2/5

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