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Vancouver's Expo '86 may fall on its face -- as its mascot did

Washington State Gov. Booth Gardner could only watch and smile as the small, mechanical spaceman -- Expo Ernie -- fell on its face before it could hand him a ticket to the 1986 World's Fair. But the breakdown of Expo '86's mascot wasn't funny to British Columbia government officials or to supporters of the province's $1.5 billion (Canadian) birthday bash, which begins in May.

``There's nothing symbolic there,'' snapped provincial Tourism Minister Claude Richmond, who is in charge of the exposition, when asked about Expo Ernie's now-scuffed face.

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With more than 40 countries already committed to participating -- including, for the first time together, the United States, China, and the Soviet Union -- and with the opening getting closer, fears remain that the extravagant, six-month-long celebration of Vancouver's centenary could be a flop.

For Canada it could be an international embarrassment. For the economically troubled west-coast province it could be a disaster that would aggravate the worries of investors who already shy away from British Columbia because of its history of militant trade unionism.

The fair, with its ballooning costs and swirling controversies, has already proved to be a millstone for Premier William Bennett and his party, dragging the government's popularity to below that of its political opposition.

With an election less than two years away, the problematic exposition may yet defeat the three-term premier, who has pinned his reelection hopes to the fair's success.

Mr. Bennett headed for California last week to tout the fair and persuade businessmen to contribute more money to their state's pavilion at the exposition.

Expo '86 was conceived five years ago as an $80 million trade fair called Transpo. A then-booming economy and a grand scheme to reclaim downtown railway lands, however, inflated the project into a full-blown world's fair on the transportation theme: ``Man in Motion.''

At the time, Bennett promised that the fair ``won't cost taxpayers a penny,'' while his critics warned that only two North American world expositions finished in the black in the past three decades.

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The latest budget figures released by the goverment-owned corporation sponsoring the fair put its deficit at near $400 million -- a debt the premier says the provincial treasury will recover over the next decade by selling lottery tickets.

Nevertheless, his optimism has failed to ignite widespread support, as the seemingly revolving door at the fair's corporate suites continues to toss out managers.

Over the last two years nearly 20 senior administrators have been fired or released, including the former Expo '86 president, Michael Bartlett. He was replaced in June by the chairman of the board, James Pattison.

Mr. Pattison, a millionaire and a friend of Bennett's, has been unable to douse the political brush fires so far.

The former used-car salseman, who now owns a host of companies, has refused to divulge details on the publicly-tendered contracts awarded by the fair to his companies, and he will not say why fired executives walked away with reportedly handsome severance checks.

``Expo has a policy of not discussing private, individual matters,'' Pattison says.

Pattison, who is not drawing a salary for his work, has also had to explain why the exposition's biggest contract has gone to an American firm convicted of defrauding the New Orleans World's Fair.

The controversies continued last week as the 1985 exposition in Japan closed amid cries from businessmen that 90 percent of the participating merchants lost money.

The plan to cover the predicted British Columbia deficit through the provincially run lotteries is being questioned after three fund-raising groups associated with the fair fell C$2.3 million short of covering the cost of their summer numbers games.

``We thought it was a license to print money,'' said Michael Latta, a chief organizer. ``But did we ever get a rude awakening!''

Expo '86 faces other challenges. Canada's two premier theater companies -- the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival -- announced they would not participate in the exposition's arts program.

And the roof on the giant, stainless-steel geodesic dome constructed for the fair leaks.

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