Olympics leave lasting economic impact

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 7 2012 7:00 p.m. MST

"Our total visitations have been increasing," she said. "We're up over 20 million visitors annually now."

Von der Esch said the number of visitors has climbed each year since 2005 when there were 17 million unique visitors — an all-time high at the time. She attributes much of the increased interest to the state's exposure during the Olympics.

"There is no question that the 2002 Winter Games made the case that Utah has the greatest venues," she said. "We were proud of how we showcased the state."

That success of the Olympices helped attract other events, like World Cup skiing and the Dew Tour, said Jeff Robbins, president and chief executive officer of the Utah Sports Commission.

"If you're … trying to bring major sporting events in, the impact of the Olympics is huge because if you can host an event of that size and magnitude … you don't have to convince people as hard that you can pull off a major event," Robbins said. "You get instant credibility when you go out into the marketplace."

Among the major benefits of the Games was the development of world-class facilities for various winter sports, said Colin Hilton, president and chief executive officer of the Utah Athletic Foundation.

The nonprofit organization operates under the trade name Utah Olympic Legacy and is responsible for managing and maintaining the Olympic Legacy facilities, as well as promoting participation in winter Olympic sporting events. He said in the 10 years since the Games, interest in previously less popular activities has risen dramatically.

"For example, five years ago, we were doing about 600 kids in learn-to-skate programs," he said. "We are averaging 1,400 kids a year now. Speedskating has gone from 300 kids to about 750 and even curling has gone from basically nothing to about 600 individuals in our curling leagues."

Freestyle and nordic skiing have also gained popularity as well as hockey. The endowment has contributed about $120 million during the past decade, with user fees from participants also generating revenue to help keep the programs running.

He said the programs are currently in strong financial shape and continue to attract new participants.

Meanwhile, the Games continue to be a catalyst for business and economic development, said Spencer Eccles, executive director of Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development.

"Because of the Games, we've been discovered," he said. In the past decade, Eccles said that the state has garnered accolades as one of the nation's "top places to do business" and as one of the states with the largest growth in foreign exports, according to Forbes magazine.

The chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber said there is a definite correlation between Utah's economic prosperity over the past 10 years and its hosting of the '02 Olympics.

"What the Olympics did first and foremost is improve the 'Utah brand,'" said Natalie Gochnour. "By having such a successful Games, we increased our credibility globally and our success in international trade, in attracting jobs, (and) the Olympics were a foundational piece in setting us up for this decade and beyond." 

E-mail: jlee@desnews.com Twitter: JasenLee1

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