What does an out-of-the-way city of 180,000 do to revitalize a sagging downtown economy and rid itself of a skid row area surrounded by acres of useless railroad tracks? First, it signs on an indefatigable optimist, with the improbable name of King Cole, and then, more improbable still, it authorizes him to put on a World’s Fair. Spokane, Wash, may not have the prominence—yet—of World’s Fair cities like Montreal, Brussels and New York, but when Expo ’74 opened to bulging crowds two weekends ago, King Cole could be pardoned some chest-thumping pride.
King Cole isn’t very old (52), but otherwise lives up to the nursery rhyme. Being a merry soul wasn’t, however, enough to get the fair underway. He’s also smart and hardworking with a steely resilience that carried him through the four rough years it took to plan the U.S.’s only major international exposition in the bicentennial decade.
Six-foot-three, 240 pounds, and, fortunately, in robust health, Cole looks back on Expo as a long series of dreams and a few nightmares. The nightmares included the onset of the energy crisis, criticism from out of state which ridiculed Expo as a glorified county fair, and the defeat of a bond issue designed to underwrite the project. “The night the bond issue failed,” Cole recalls, “we were in limbo—except for me. I was in hell.” But undaunted, Cole and the city fathers pushed through a business and occupation tax that raised the $5.7 million seed money which was needed.
The fair, which has an environmental theme, expects 4.8 million people. Opening-day ceremonies alone had 85,000 in attendance, including President Nixon. The effort, of course, has not been without cost to the affable Cole, who is the father of eight children he is getting reacquainted with, ranging in age from 24 to 11. He recalls a passport photograph, taken six years ago. It shows a man with a full head of dark hair. “That,” he says proudly, pointing to his now-gray and thinning pate, “is due to the strain of putting this fair together.” But Cole steadfastly refused to step aside or relax. “Six months ago some friends were so worried about me they suggested I take a month or so off,” he recalls. “That was the worst crisis.” He survived it. “I have a way of hunkering down and letting things blow by, and then picking them up again,” he says.
Of all Cole’s accomplishments, one of the most remarkable is his ability to sustain his popularity. He can’t set foot on the fairgrounds without being stopped every few feet for a greeting or a congratulation. Cole takes it all philosophically. “By the time I was 3,” he says, “with a name like King Cole I had to learn how to defend myself.” These days he does it with a smile.