Knoxville World's Fair of 1982
The Knoxville International Energy Exposition was held from May through October 1982 on a 67-acre area a few blocks west of the city's central business district. The idea of a world's fair in Knoxville was first conceived by W. Stewart Evans, a retired military officer and president of the Downtown Knoxville Association, a coalition of downtown business leaders. The organization's members were looking for ways to lure more shoppers to the central business district and away from the growing number of suburban shopping malls. In 1974, while on a trip to Tulsa, Evans met the man who had organized an earlier world's fair in Spokane, Washington. The Knoxville businessman immediately recognized that such an exposition in Knoxville would leave the city with a large tract of downtown acreage that could be used for downtown redevelopment after the exposition closed.
Evans's vision excited Mayor Kyle Testerman, who named banker Jake Butcher to head an investigative committee to determine the feasibility of an international exposition in Knoxville. In 1976 the Knoxville International Energy Exposition, Incorporated (KIEE), a private, nonprofit organization, was formed; the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) in Paris was contacted to obtain official approval and listing on the bureau's calendar of approved events; local and out-of-town banks raised money to supplement an $11.6 million city bond issue; and exposition backers gradually acquired a 67-acre tract in the lower Second Creek area. The driving force behind the exposition movement was Butcher, whose banking empire supplied the funds to lure foreign participants and loaned money to Butcher friends and associates seeking quick profits from the fair. Insiders called the event “Jake's Fair.”
President Ronald Reagan and a host of dignitaries attended the May 1982 opening day ceremonies. The United States and nineteen other nations participated in the exposition, which took as its theme “Energy Turns the World.” The fair counted approximately 11 million visitors, although many local people visited the exposition several times. Despite considerable skepticism and some local opposition, the fair ended on a note of success, and KIEE almost broke even financially. Nevertheless, many who had hoped for a financial windfall through short-term rentals or commercial ventures were sorely disappointed.
More disappointing was the fact that no major downtown redevelopment took place on the fair site. The United States pavilion, lacking a tenant, was demolished, as were all the other buildings constructed for the fair. Fifteen years later, the site remains a park, with some convention and restaurant facilities. In 1990 the Knoxville Museum of Art opened its new facilities on the site.