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Utah's Olympic Legacy: The Impact of the 2002 Winter Games. How the Games Affected Utah's Economy

The Olympic Oval in Kearns is supported in part by an endowment left after the 2002 Games.

By Andrea Smardon

Salt Lake City, UT – A few years before the 2002 Games, the Utah Transit Authority dug a 30 foot hole curb to curb in the middle of Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City. CEO John Inglish stood on a wooden bridge staring into the pit, thinking about how life would change when light rail came to Salt Lake City.

"This had been a nice big wide street - not too much bustling activity on it frankly - but I did all of a sudden fear that we had perhaps destroyed something we shouldn't have," said Inglish with a laugh.

By the time the Olympics came to Salt Lake, the city's 150 year-old utilities were replaced, two light rail lines were built and I-15 was expanded. The changes were made possible by substantial funding from the federal government, but Bob Bennett - Utah's former US Senator on the appropriations committee - said these projects would have been funded even without the Olympics; the games just moved them up to the top of the queue.

"I will confess, when I was campaigning hard for the light rail program in Salt Lake, I played the Olympic card shamelessly, and I think it was very helpful," said Bennet, "but it didn't mean that money came to Utah that wouldn't have come."

John Inglish says the full impact of the Winter Games can actually be seen further down the line. Today, there are four light rail lines, and three more on the way, with much of the funding coming from a sales tax referendum.

"You remember the first line? They trusted us with 300 million; now they're trusting us with 3 billion," said Inglish, "Had the Olympics been an embarrassment, I don't think we'd have built any of the follow up lines, we wouldn't have been trusted to do it."

From Inglish's point of view, the investments made in Utah's infrastructure are clearly paying off.

"The economy in Utah is better than about any other state in the nation. Why? Because we have been building infrastructure. And the economy of Utah will get even better now, because while everyone else has been waiting for someone else to help them, we helped ourselves," said Inglish.

In addition to transportation infrastructure, there was also significant public investment in the Olympic venues. In the 1990's, Utah taxpayers voted to give 59 million dollars to the facilities with the hopes of attracting the games. After the 2002 games, the money was paid back with interest. But how are the venues used today... and what do they cost to maintain?

Up at the Olympic Park, on the outskirts of Park City, kids of all ages are strapping on skis. Higher in the hills, the US national freestyle team is training, along with the Australian development team. Colin Hilton is the President and CEO of the Olympic Legacy Foundation. He looks out on the slopes from a meeting room walled by windows.

"We are now using these hills more than we ever have in developing our young athletes in the various winter sport disciplines," said Hilton, "The goal of our foundation has been to use these Olympic venues, so they aren't just built and then become white elephants."

According to Hilton, the venues have doubled the participation from 10 years ago. Now they get 300,000 visits a year at the Park, and half a million at the Olympic Oval in Kearns. But does all this participation bring in revenue?

"Most people don't realize most of these sporting facilities don't even come close to breaking even," Hilton says.

The venues are subsidized by a 76 million dollar endowment left after the 2002 games - a fund that was diminished when the markets crashed in 2008. The Legacy Foundation is drawing on that endowment to make up a 4.5 million dollar annual deficit. Hilton estimates the venues have about a 20-year life expectancy at the current spend rate. The foundation is trying to find a model that will work in perpetuity without cutting programs.

So if the venues are well-used but losing money - what did Utah really gain from the Olympics? Former Governor Mike Leavitt says the Winter Games gave the state a brand.

"I traveled a great deal as governor and before the Olympics I would have to explain where Utah was. After the games I would just say: Utah, you remember the 2002 Winter Olympic Games - Oh, Yes. I remember.' We were now identified with this powerful symbol and people had something that set us apart," said Leavitt.

Tourism officials will tell you, that brand adds up to real dollars. Leigh Von Der Esch is Director of the Utah Of ce of Tourism. She said tourism spending has gone up 2 billion dollars in the 10 years since the Olympics.

"It's not just ski tickets, although we're trending upwards in market share in the number of ski tickets that we're selling, but also national parks visitation. And also foreign visitation has increased steadily. It hasn't hurt to have Delta put in the int'l flight to Paris. But The Germans, The Scots, the Italians, the Brazilians, all of them saw Utah and got in interest in saying hey I'd like to go there," said Von Der Esch.

Now when John Inglish thinks back to the moment before the Olympics, when the UTA dug up Main Street, it brings tears to his eyes.

"Today I think that has helped to create a whole new dynamic in downtown Salt Lake. You've got a much more intimate main street. You've got a massive construction now that is changing the way people live and enjoy the city. It's a wonderful thing to look back now and say maybe it wasn't a bad idea to tear up Main Street," said Inglish.

In the end, most people I talked to said that hosting the Olympics was a net gain for Utah. Many people contributed with time, money, and energy to building up the image of Salt Lake as an Olympic city. Ten years later, Utahns find themselves reinvesting to keep that image alive.

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