Energy Expo '82 ended its six-month run yesterday, surpassing its attendance goal of 11 million visitors and expecting to rank as one of a few profitable World's Fairs.
Officials said the fair generated $500 million in spending for this city on the banks of the Tennessee River, boosted local tax revenues by $25 million, provided a catalyst to revitalize a blighted downtown and put Knoxville on the world map.
The fair built several hotels, two parking garages and a convention hall, brought $225 million in federal highway improvements and spawned 12,000 jobs that kept local unemployment three points below the state's 11 percent average.
The city received poor marks at first because of fast-buck landlords who evicted tenants to house tourists at exorbitant rates and because of a disastrous reservation system that booked thousands of tourists into low-quality rooms.
But few visitors complained about the fair itself. "It let you touch and explore so much of the world," said Merle Davis, 26, a coal mine excavator who drove two hours from Middlesboro, Ky., with his wife, Cynthia, and their mothers. It was his fourth visit.
"What I liked was that every foreign pavilion had something that was made in America," he said. "I saw General Electric turbines in Saudi Arabia and Caterpillar tractors in Argentina. It makes you proud to be an American."
"There are a variety of ways to measure its success," said S.H. (Bo) Roberts, president of the nonprofit corporation that put on the fair.
"Financially, we paid off $30 million in debt to 43 banks and $558,000 in seed money and pledges. We expect to finish in the black."
But Joseph Dodd, a political science professor at the University of Tennessee who has written a book on the fair's financing fears that city taxpayers will have to pay if development plans for the fair site flop. He is worried that visitors will remember what might be called the greedy side of Knoxville.
The Knoxville Journal has been swamped with hundreds of angry letters from visitors such as Aline Austin of San Jose, Calif., who griped that "the poor visitor is subjected to gouging and rotten service and accommodations." The state attorney general is investigating more than 1,500 cases involving tourists who lost deposits placed with three fair-sanctioned housing services after canceling rooms within the 30-day grace period. Two of the services are in bankruptcy.
Nine motels are suing the Knoxville Tourism and Convention Bureau, the fair developer and a fair housing agency for failing to deliver promised tourists.
On Monday, about 6,750 fair workers, many of them local college students, are expected to pack the National Guard Armory to fill out unemployment forms. Others such as Wendy Len, 21, who hawked French pastries to cornbread lovers, are moving on to places like Aspen, Colo., where she plans "to be a snow bunny."
After the pavilions come down and fair assets are auctioned, some to planners of the 1984 fair in New Orleans, officials predict that there will be plenty of construction jobs next year when developers plan to break ground for a $150 million condominium, apartment and retail development on the fair site, once a seedy railroad yard and hobo jungle.
The gleaming 266-foot Sunsphere, which resembles a giant gold golf ball, will remain, along with several restaurants, two buildings owned by the city and the U.S. pavilion, a $20 million glass and steel facility up for sale.
The fair was neither as tacky nor as terrific as predicted. A few vendors such as barbecue king Buddy Smothers, 53, struck it rich. He plans to plow sparerib profits into two new restaurants. But cafes and shops just blocks away from the 71-acre extravaganza suffered as locals were seduced by exhibits from 23 countries, free entertainment and exotic foods.
Fair consultants missed on their predictions of overnight visitors, who balked at reports of $100-a-night rooms and high gasoline prices. To avoid price-gouging, many visitors traveled here by bus for one-day visits.
"A lot of the tourists were just smarter than locals who tried to rip them off," cafe operator Joann Burkhard said. "Who wants to spend $200 a night for a dump?"
Also vulnerable to setbacks were close associates of United American Bank chairman Jake Butcher, the aggressive banker who played Washington connections for $22.4 million in federal block grants to seed the fair and rewarded colleagues with fair contracts.
Before the fair opened, H. Pat Wood, partner in a large property management firm and a UAB board member, cleared and paved land for two parking lots. He had expected to gross $2.4 million, but the cars never showed up, and by midsummer the two lots were shut down.
The fair's theme was "energy turns the world." But the most popular pavilions -- China, Peru and Egypt -- had little to do with energy. China brought rugs and antique vases, and every object had a price tag. Peru unwrapped a mummy.
France, which displayed a model nuclear power plant and techniques for carbon-dating art works, cried foul. "South Korea brought dancers, and Peru and Egypt brought gold -- which has nothing to do with energy," said French Commissioner General Hubert Cousin.
"Most people came here for fun, but we didn't come to be Disneyland. We just didn't realize the fair would attract so many people with so little interest in technical achievement," he said.
Last week, as the fair prepared to close, tourists packed China's pavilion for one last gawk at fragments of the Great Wall, and they snapped up bargain trinkets and danced atop tables at a makeshift German beer hall.
"We're going to have withdrawal pains after it's all over," sighed Aline Anderson, a Knoxville dental assistant. "It's going to be back to square-dancing and church suppers."