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U.S. Pavilion for 2015 World Expo still has $26M in unpaid debts

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Despite unpaid bills in Milan, there’s already an RFP issued for the 2020 expo in Dubai

American Food 2.0: United to Feed the Planet, the official U.S. pavilion at the 2015 Expo Milano. Pavilion architect James Biber told Curbed his firm is still owed $1 million for their work on the project.
Milan Expo 2015 / Biber Architects, © Saverio Lombardi Vallauri

An architect who worked on the successful 2015 U.S. Pavilion in Milan says that organizers still haven’t paid millions of dollars due to the contractors and designers involved in the successful installation, and no current plan exist to reimburse those involved in the project.

New York-based architect James Biber says his firm is owed a little more than $1 million from his successful design of the U.S. Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015. What’s most frustrating to him, in addition to the financial toll this debt has had on his firm, is that the U.S. government has already issued an RFP for the Dubai Expo in 2020, and hasn’t seemed to learn the lessons from the last Expo.

“I find it outrageous that they would already be working on 2020 having not dealt with this debacle,” Biber told Curbed.

Biber and his firm designed the pavilion for the 2015 Expo Milano to reflect the theme American Food 2.0: United to Feed the Planet. The installation featured the world’s largest vertical farm, a walkway made with salvaged wood from the Coney Island Boardwalk, and a huge roof made from smart glass that could become opaque to block the summer sun.

The sustainability- and food-themed pavilion was, by most accounts, a success. More than 6 million visited during the six-month-long expo, making it the most-visited pavilion and doubling pre-opening estimates. A record number of visitors, more than 6 million, saw the pavilion during the 6 months of the Expo, making it the most visited pavilion and doubling pre-opening estimates.

According to Biber, the pavilion was supposed to be paid for by a nonprofit, the Friends of the USA Pavilion Milano 2015, which formed in 2013 to run the pavilion. The State Department outsourced the entire pavilion project due to a law from the 1990s that bans the use of State Department funds for world’s fairs. Biber says all his contracts are with this nonprofit, and the State Department technically isn’t liable.

While $62 million was budgeted to operate and run the pavilion, The Friends group wasn’t able to cover a fundraising shortfall of $26 million.

When the funding gap was discovered during pavilion operations in 2016, organizers decided to continue operation, hoping the U.S. State Department would later provide the additional funds, instead of scaling back operations. This created a situation where Friends were only paying operating expenses, and was ultimately unable to pay back many creditors, including Biber Architecture and Thinc Design.

In late 2016, the State Department sought permission and funding to cover the debt incurred by the U.S. Expo Milano Pavilion in the 2017 appropriations bill, but authorization language was not included in the final legislation.

Last summer, the Department of State, via a letter from Ambassador Philip T. Reeker, informed Friends of the Pavilion they couldn’t assist with funding, and on July 9, 2017, the nonprofit filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Now that Friends is in bankruptcy, its not clear how these debts can be paid.

Charlie Faas, CEO of the nonprofit Friends of the U.S. Pavilion Milano 2015, told ABC that “It’s not a situation that anyone went into thinking that that’s how it would resolve itself.”

Relief also wasn’t included in the omnibus bill signed late last week. Biber feels that may have been his last chance to be repaid.

Most of the unpaid bills impact 40 or so contractors and construction teams who assembled and designed the pavilion. Nussli, a Swiss company that built and operated the pavilion, is owed roughly $13 million. The Swiss ambassador has filed a formal complaint with the U.S. State Department over the unpaid bills.

Biber, who shared billing invoices and creditor claims documents with Curbed, says that dozens of small businesses in the United States and Europe have been impacted. His relatively small firm of 6-8 architects struggles with such a large outstanding debt.

“I’ve had to lay people off,” he says. “It’s a huge problem for businesses this size.”