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Panelists reminisce on 1982 World’s Fair and its lasting impact on Knoxville

By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA

Earlier this week the Knoxville Chamber hosted “The World’s Fair Meant Business” panel, celebrating the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Fair and providing details of its lasting legacy on local businesses.

Doug Lawyer, Vice President of Economic Development at the Chamber, was the moderator. Cathy Ackermann, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Ackermann Marketing and PR; Don Freeman, Chairman Emeritus of Rentenbach Constructors; and Alex Widmer, Director of Operations at Petro’s Chili & Chips, spoke on the panel.

Lawyer started the panel by having each speaker introduce themselves and how they were involved with the Fair. Ackermann was an early employee of the World’s Fair doing international marketing. Widmer’s father helped a Washington State couple bring Petro’s to Knoxville for the Fair. Teknovation.biz readers will remember we wrote profiles on Ackermann and Petro’s. Those stories can be found here and here. Unlike the other two, Rentenbach Constructors was an established business in Knoxville. Freeman said the company had been around for more than 30 years and was a $30 million/per year company by 1982. Freeman said he was the Vice President of Marketing at the time of the Fair but would eventually go on to lead the company as CEO.

Lawyer then kicked off the official panel by having Freeman talk about the structures Rentenbach was involved in, such as the U.S. Pavilion and Sunsphere. (The Sunsphere was recently renovated and has reopened with a museum of World’s Fair memorabilia.)

Freeman joked there wasn’t enough time to tell all the details and said the projects were largely a team effort where every person involved in planning and working on the Fair wanted it to succeed. He called it an exciting but daunting project.

“You chase some goals and then when you get a hold of them you say, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I got?’” Freeman said. “It’s one of those situations where failure is not an option.”

He said that of the 14 firms that applied to a request for proposals from the United States Congress for the Fair, Rentenbach was selected. Freeman also had photos from before, during, and after construction of several of the structures at the World’s Fair site.

The now-famous Sunsphere came with its own set of construction problems. “Nobody had ever put a true sphere on top of a tower like this,” Freeman said. “It was truly one-of-a-kind.”

After going over the history of the event, Lawyer asked panelists how things would look different if the Fair was held here today. Ackermann said that in 1982, public relations (PR) was not as “baked into” marketing plans for corporations as it is today. Back then, she said, she and the companies coming to Knoxville were learning how to do PR together.

Widmer said Petro’s is about hospitality, and for customers that often means having a good return on their time for their dollar. If he was planning for the World Fair today, Widmer said he would have multiple locations throughout the Fair rather than just one spot.

Panelists then moved into talking about the business impact of the Fair. Lawyer asked Freeman and Ackermann if they had long-term clients they were introduced to at the Fair.

Freeman said Rentenbach was introduced to The Federal Express, now FedEx, and eventually went on to build the company’s Memphis headquarters.

“We were the low bidder on that project, and we were able to build our first $50 million project,” he said.

Forty years later, Rentenbach, which has now merged with The Christman Company, still works with FedEx. The firm is currently working on an extension to the Memphis headquarters, as well as a hub in Indianapolis. Freeman estimated the projects total $3 billion.

Ackermann said she also had lasting relationships with corporations from the World’s Fair. The event also led to an area of expertise for her PR firm.

“We developed such a strong expertise in tourism and travel as a result of the World’s Fair,” she said.

Lawyer closed the panel by asking if these businesses would participate in a World’s Fair in Knoxville again, which received a resounding yes. He also asked what the influence of the event was on the community of Knoxville.

Freeman said it was a demonstration of what public/private partnerships can do in a community, adding the event also changed the perception of “the Scruffy Little City.”

Widmer said he often hears from both customers that first tried Petro’s at the Fair as well as family members who heard about it from older generations, calling it a “trickle-down effect.”

He also said that hearing the stories of success from businesses at the World’s Fair have inspired him to want to continue carrying that torch.

Ackermann and Widmer both agreed that the Fair brought in opportunities for many of Knoxville’s businesses to take a leap of faith and become the vibrant economy it is today. It helped others believe in their community and take a chance.

“I think it took a pretty risk-averse community and helped us be brave and bold in ways we didn’t think we could possibly be,” Ackermann said. “I thoroughly enjoyed watching this community open up and believe in itself.”

The webinar can be viewed here. Look for more coverage on the upcoming anniversary of the World’s Fair at teknovation.biz. 

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