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Step right up, Knoxville's having a world-class fair

New York . . . London . . . Philadelphia . . . Paris . . . Chicago . . . St. Louis . . . San Francisco . . . Montreal . . . Osaka -- all have had their world's fair.

Now it's Knoxville's turn.

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Knoxville, Tenn.?

Why not, said W. Stewart Evans, after hearing how Spokane, Wash., had organized one. Downtown Knoxville businessmen were looking for something to shake some of the dust off of local development plans. So Mr. Evans, executive director of Downtown Knoxville Association, presented his idea.

It was a much-debated idea from the start -- and still is, less than 10 months before the 1982 World's Fair opens in downtown Knoxville.

But, based on interviews with critics and promoters, including the mayor, the bottom line appears to be this: The fair is a controversial, but catalytic boost to Knoxville.

What the expected 11 million visitors will see at the fair (which runs from May 1 to Oct. 31) is the biggest show this city has ever produced. Energy is the theme: Many countries, US states, and various industries will be exhibitors, featuring the latest energy hardware. Several rides, including a 125- foot-tall Ferris wheel, and name entertainers will be used to court the many repeat visits from local families needed to break even or make a profit.

What visitors will not see are the behind- the-scene controversies that have swirled around this city's fair preparations, as they have swirled around preparations for many of the world's fairs of the past.

Local critics say too much public money (city, state, and federal) is being spent to develop the site -- a site they say will primarily benefit private interests after the fair. They decry the lack of a city vote on the decision to commit more than $11 million in city funds to the project.

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"My concern is public money going into private projects at inflated costs and exorbitant profits being made," alleges Joseph Dodd, associate professor of political science at the University of Tennessee here. His criticism, he says, applies not only to the 70-acre fair site but to a strip of land adjacent to the site being developed at the same time in relation to the fair. And, Mr. Dodd points out, there was no competitive bidding for the construction on this land involving federal funds.

He questions the need of nearly $21 million in federal funds spent on the fair being used to lure private investment in adjacent land -- an area he contends would have been developed before long anyway.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) has criticized the another $21 million in federal funds spent on the US pavilion. A lack of planning, it says, leaves unclear how to use the building after the fair. Future use of the entire fair site is also vague, but may include apartments, a fair spokesman says.

Knoxville Mayor Randy Tyree does not dispute the GAO concern, but defends other fair preparations. The much-criticized, deep financial involvement of Knoxville banker Jake Butcher in the fair is also what has helped make it possible, he says. Mr. Butcher, an unsuccessful candidate for governor, is a chief organizer of the fair.

Development plans were abundant for the fair area -- but not being pushed before the fair planning got under way, says Mayor Tyree. The fair site, though it included some businesses, was mostly abandoned railroad tracks, he says.

Development of the actual fair site is also being funded by $25 million in unsecured, private loans.

City Council member Bernice O'Connor, the council's only outspoken fair critic, has sued in state courts (unsuccessfully so far) to stop the use of federal funds in the fair- related development adjacent to the site. "I wasn't trying to destroy the World's Fair," she says. "What I'm trying to do is stop the use of public money for private gain."

Some 14,000 Knoxville residents signed petitions calling for a public referendum on the city commitment of funds to the fair. But in an interview, Mayor Tyree candidly said he had opposed a referendum because "it would have been voted down."

If there were a vote today, he estimates, it would pass because the public mood has shifted in favor of the fair. But the most important gains from the fair are the "intangibles," says Mayor Tyree. "We have broken the back of the negative thinkers. We' re together."

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