Bob Clark returns to Clayco from international service in Dubai with 'extremely grateful pride in America' – St. Louis Business Journal – The Business Journals

Clayco founder and Executive Chairman Bob Clark this month is resuming his usual duties at the construction and development company after having answered a call to represent the U.S. overseas that left him introspective about America’s place in the world.
For six months, Clark represented the U.S. Department of State as the United States commissioner general overseeing the nation’s presence at Expo 2020 Dubai, the international event held every five years that was previously known as the World’s Fair.
Delayed a year by the pandemic, the Expo was the largest event ever held in the Arab world, according to organizers there. From Oct. 1, 2021, to March 31 this year, more than 24 million people visited pavilions in which 192 countries, the most ever to appear at the event, showcased the best they had to offer.
To take the position as the United States’ official representative at the event, Clark had to resign his position at Clayco and with all other boards. After founding Clayco in St. Louis in 1984, St. Louis native Clark moved the company to Chicago in 2013, although it still has many ties to St. Louis, including the headquarters of its development arm, CRG.
While in Dubai, Clark took a total of 10 days off, working seven days a week overseeing the USA Pavilion and its 225 employees while hosting over 80 international delegations and greeting visitors who ranged from members of Congress to Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and astronaut Charlie Duke, who walked on the moon in the 1970s.
But the visitors with the most lasting effect on Clark, he said, might have been the businesspeople he met every day who wanted to connect with Americans for joint ventures and possibly relocate to the U.S. one day.
It was through business ties in the construction community that Clark learned of the opportunity. John Rakolta Jr., chairman of a large Detroit-based construction company, Walbridge, who had become good friends with Clark over the years, was serving as Donald Trump-appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and U.S. commissioner general for the Expo. When President Joe Biden took office in 2021, Rakolta was recalled, but recommended Clark, a Democrat who previously had served on White House initiatives and had experience visiting Dubai, for the position. Clark “reached out to some friends at the White House and asked them if they knew what was going on, and the rest is history,” he said.
The site of the Expo, with custom-built roads, transit and infrastructure, will become a city and serve as a lasting reminder of the Expo the same way that St. Louis is dotted with buildings that date to the World’s Fair. Clark and Clayco have been involved in redeveloping some of those, including the former hospital that has been converted into the Delmar Divine nonprofit complex led by Build-A-Bear founder Maxine Clark.
Clark talked to the Business Journal about his experience at the Expo.
Were you more interested in getting involved with the Expo because of St. Louis’ World’s Fair history? There’s still quite a legacy in most of the cities that have had a World’s Fair — there’s a surprising lingering positive effect. Maybe not in a younger generation as you get further and further away, but in my generation when I was a kid, people were still talking about the World’s Fair in St. Louis and the big Ferris wheel that had been in Forest Park and that Forest Park was a remnant of the World’s Fair, along with Washington University’s hilltop campus. [With the Delmar Divine], there’s still these legacy projects that are having a positive impact over 100 years after the World’s Fair happened here in St. Louis. When I first heard about the (Expo) opportunity, I probably knew more than the average bear about World’s Fairs and their impact and how important they are.
Each country showcased the “best they had to offer.” What were the exhibits in the USA Pavilion? SpaceX gave us the design, so we built an exact replica of the Falcon 9 rocket. We were able to have a moon rock that people could touch. We had 1.2 million people come through. We had Thomas Jefferson’s Quran, the first time the Library of Congress ever allowed it to leave since they bought Thomas Jefferson’s book library upon his death. That was really special, and people were fascinated by that. I got to actually unpack it and page through it — not very many people have ever touched it. So that was really cool for me. The most impressive thing for visitors was we had a seven-minute, really high-tech Disney-like production of some of America’s technology, quantum computing, energy and of course the space program.
The astronauts had to be some of the most exciting visitors to the USA Pavilion. We had about 20 astronauts altogether. And we had one of the French astronauts (Thomas Pesquet), who just flew up on the Falcon 9, so it was really cool to have him go out and stand in front of the model. We asked him what it was like to go up in space, and you’d have to see it, but he goes through five minutes of the stages where his whole body’s shaking, saying the first 30 seconds were like this and then it was this, and then all of a sudden it was still. He was with a Russian pilot astronaut who had this toy soldier tied to a string that was about 6 inches long. And then all of a sudden you could see the toy soldier floating. And that’s when you knew you were really in space, when that little soldier is floating.
With the Expo promoting unity and connections across the world, did things end on a negative note with the Russian invasion of Ukraine? It was more like a positive note, in terms of the unity with Ukraine. The day the Russian invasion happened, a whole group of commissioners general from other countries, including myself, gathered spontaneously, standing in front of the Ukraine Pavilion, and then a huge crowd showed up. We did a photograph and held our flags up and the whole group just started applauding, which was a really touching moment for all of us. There was a lot of unity. We had [the USA Pavilion’s] national day on March 6, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo led our presidential delegation that I was a part of. She asked me specifically to take her over to the Ukraine Pavilion, where hundreds of thousands of people started writing sticky notes of support — yellow, green, pink. And she wanted to fill a note out and put it on the wall.
What happened at the Russian Pavilion? The traffic dropped off noticeably. The whole world took notice of that and was shocked by the brutal nature of a barbaric, unjustified attack.
What’s the lasting impact on you from this experience? The biggest thing that I come away from the Expo with is an extremely grateful pride in America. I met people from every country in the world. On a daily basis, I met people who aspire to come to America, to be American, to go to college in America. This is a dream of people around the world. Sometimes we forget that when we’re here. We take that for granted. If you sat down and thought about it, of the 192 countries that were there at the Expo, there’s 191 other choices of places you could be from. Is there a single one you would rather be from? I kind of think not, right? And if you ask 191 countries, would their people aspire to be from America or have U.S. citizenship? The vast majority of them would say yes. That’s a stunning thing to think about.
Did hearing those stories change your views on immigration at all? My position as a Democrat in general is that we’ve gotten a little kooky about the whole immigration misconception. We should overhaul our rules, and what’s really crazy is, we do educate a ton of really bright people from all over the world and then we usually don’t renew their green card (residency permit) status. So we educate them here and then we send these really bright, smart people from some of our best colleges in the world back to their countries even though they’d like to lead productive lives here in the United States. So obviously I think we should be taking advantage of keeping some of those bright minds here, and likewise I think that places like Dubai and Saudi Arabia are taking advantage of workforces that are close to their borders to help build their nation and build their communities, just like the United States has in the past — the Chinese built our railroad, and the Mexican people have provided an enormous amount of labor for our agricultural industries and businesses and for the construction industry. And to some great degree, we’ve kind of cut ourselves off from something that makes us so productive in a way that cuts our nose off to spite our face. I have strong views on that, but I had strong views before I went to the Expo.
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