Olympics leave lasting economic impact

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 7 2012 7:39 p.m. MST

Alpine skier Janica Kostelic of Croatia displays a gold medal Feb 22, 2002, at the Olympic Medals Plaza in downtown Salt Lake City. Like the Salt Lake Olympic Games, the metal for London's Olympic medals will come from the Kennecott Utah Copper mine.

Chuck Wing, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A decade ago, Utah became the sports capital of the world during its 16-day run as host of the XIX Olympic Winter Games. The event raised the Beehive State's profile. But it also brought economic impacts that are still being felt throughout the Wasatch front.

Wednesday the Olympic torch will be lit once again, a bright reminder of the competition and pageantry that greeted the nations of the world. But it is also a fitting reminder of what occurred here in Salt Lake City and nearby venues. By the conclusion of the closing ceremonies, the 2002 Games was among the most lucrative Winter Olympics ever staged.

Official state estimates of the economic impact showed the Salt Lake Olympics yielded $100 million in profits, $4.8 billion in sales, 35,000 job years of employment and $1.5 billion in earnings for Utah workers during 2002.

Since then, the state's ski and lodging industries have enjoyed record-setting years, with a 42 percent increase in skier visits. Direct expenditures from skiers and snowboarders have increased 67 percent from $704 million in 2002-03 to $1.2 billion in 2010-11.

In addition, numerous national governing bodies for many Olympic sports have relocated to Utah as a result of the Games, including speedskating, bobsled and skeleton, as well as the nordic training facilities.

"We have become the winter sports capital of the United States," said Fraser Bullock, president and chief executive officer of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. He joined the Salt Lake Organizing Committee in May of 1999, acting as its chief operating officer and the manager of the $1.31 billion budget of the Olympics and Paralympics until his appointment as chief executive in April 2002.

He noted that a number of globally recognized winter sports companies like Finnish sports equipment maker Amer Sports and French ski manufacturer Rossignol have moved their U.S. headquarters to Utah in the decade since the Games.

"The world saw and these companies saw the wonderful environment we have here," Bullock said. "Utah was put in the spotlight for a period of time that drew companies here."

The Games were at least partly responsible for the construction of several area venues that are still in use and have been a source of significant revenue for their respective communities, including the Olympic Village at the University of Utah, the Utah Olympic Park in Summit County and the Olympic Oval in Kearns.

"We helped expand (Rice-Eccles) stadium … similarly, we helped build the (Maverik) Center and the Peaks Ice Arena," Bullock said. While some of the venues were public-private partnerships, the long-term economic benefit to the community is substantial, he said.

The profits from the Games were distributed throughout the local community, with a $72 million endowment left to maintain former Olympic facilities, $10.2 million for Olympic Legacy Plazas, $11.5 million for charitable donations and $7 million in U.S. Olympic Committee business credits.

The interest from the endowment funds the operation of the venues, Bullock said. While the endowment principal has been affected by the economic downturn — reducing the amount to less than $60 million for a time, the amount has begun to increase, sitting in the $65 million dollar range, he said.

When the torch was lit 10 years ago, Salt Lake City became the most populous area ever to host the Winter Olympics. That distinction later went to Torino, Italy, which itself was surpassed by Vancouver in 2010.

The global media exposure of the Games gave Utah an estimated $210 million value in media exposure from locally broadcast events that have translated into increased tourism, according to Leigh Von der Esch, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism. The state has experienced nine of Utah's top 10 all-time skier years in the decade since the 2002 Olympics.

"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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