Strictly Business: Fair forever changed Seattle, N.W.



As a child growing up in Portland, there was a time when I wanted nothing more than to see the Seattle World’s Fair.

The year was 1962, and I was 9 years old. It hadn’t occurred to me that the trip would be costly and difficult for our family of five children, the youngest less than 2 years old.

I knew any dream of going was doomed when an aunt and uncle returned from Seattle with horror stories about crowds and people who were charging high prices to park on their lawns. It would be years until I finally saw the Space Needle and the then-modernistic fairgrounds.

The Space Needle is back in the news with this weekend’s 50th anniversary of the landmark Seattle World’s Fair. I won’t be there to celebrate, but I will be reading “Truth Like the Sun,” a novel by Jim Lynch, an Olympia resident and one of my former journalist colleagues.

Lynch visited Powell’s Bookstore in Portland this past week to promote his fictional tale of World’s Fair mastermind Roger Morgan. The story follows Morgan at the time of the fair and again 40 years later, when he decides to run for mayor at age 70 and crosses paths with a young news reporter who uncovers secrets from Seattle’s — and Morgan’s — past.

Lynch, a Seattle native, said the fair had a profound impact on the Emerald City and on the entire Northwest’s destiny and economy. In those now-distant days, air travel was rare and few Americans had been to the Northwest. For many, Lynch said, the World’s Fair became the first destination in a larger tour of the Northwest, including our own beautiful Columbia River Gorge and the still-sleepy Portland-Vancouver area.


But Seattle was emerging as king. Despite the World’s Fair casting a huge Seattle shadow over the Rose City, Portland made a valiant effort to stay in the competition for Northwest supremacy. Its ambitions were huge: While Seattle was celebrating its fair, Portland’s boosters were making a pitch for the 1968 Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Committee nominated Detroit, and the 1968 Olympics were famously held in Mexico City.

In 1964, Portlanders defeated a measure to build a domed stadium, called the Delta Dome, within sight of Vancouver, by just 9,000 votes. There were new pushes for the Olympics and a new stadium, but even as a child, I sensed that Seattle had forever gained the edge.

At Powell’s, Lynch recalled reading a statement by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen about visits he and fellow Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates made to the World’s Fair. The World’s Fair presented science and technology as forces for good when many feared change, and Allen said the fair shaped his sense of the possible. If something such as this fair were possible, he said in an interview, what other dream can come true?

It’s simplistic, of course, to think that a single event could shape a city’s destiny. And many of us wouldn’t swap the less frenetic quality of life of our region for that of our grander neighbor, even if we enjoy an occasional visit there.

But as our economic doldrums grind on, a little of the vision that propelled our northern neighbor into the ranks of world-class cities certainly couldn’t hurt.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian’s business editor. 360-735-4699,;, or