SALT LAKE CITY — GOP legislative leaders pledged Thursday the state will come up with the nearly $40 million needed to ready Utah's Olympic venues for another bid, money that may not be repaid to taxpayers if Salt Lake gets another Winter Games.
"For them to be willing to step up and help lead the charge and get some more funding for our venues is terrific news. That will be heard, because that's important," Utah Sports Commission President and CEO Jeff Robbins said.
Robbins and other leaders of a new Olympic Exploratory Committee discussed a possible 2026 or 2030 Winter Games bid at a news conference held at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the site of the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2002 Olympics.
"We don't have to build new venues. We have to do a little refreshing," Robbins said, a reference to a legislative audit released earlier this week that identified $39.3 million in capital improvement projects needed at the 2002 venues.
The projects include replacing the tattered roof on the speedskating oval in Kearns, reinforcing a collapsing retaining wall along the bobsled track near Park City and repairing the snow-making system at the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center near Midway.
The audit points out the state's $59 million investment in building those facilities was repaid from 2002 Winter Games profits, along with the establishment of a $76 million endowment to keep them operating.
And the audit says organizers of a second Olympics in Utah should look to do the same.
"The Legislature may have an expectation of being reimbursed for signficant capital improvement costs from future Olympic proceeds," the audit stated.
But Thursday, both Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, and House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said they don't expect the $40 million to be repaid if Salt Lake hosts another financially successful Olympics.
"Much of those are costs that we think would be important investments for our state whether we were attempting to host the Games again or not," said Hughes, a member of the exploratory committee's board, said
The speaker said the $40 million is money the state would "prioritize and not expect the Games to pay back."
Niederhauser said the Legislature already has appropriated some funds in recent years for the venues because "it's important to our brand here in Utah that we are the place for winter sports and we need to keep that up."
The Senate president said he expects to begin setting aside money for the venues during the 2018 Legislature. The audit suggested funding the improvements over the next decade, possibly through an annual appropriation.
"We're not anticipating any type of repayment," said Niederhauser, a co-chairman of the exploratory committee along with Robbins and Fraser Bullock, chief operating officer of the 2002 Olympics. "The returns to Utah are tremendous and we want to do them regardless."
Gov. Gary Herbert, another member of the exploratory committee board, said "probably some of this stuff is fluid," but he agreed with Hughes that the money "is kind of outside the Olympic process."
The governor said the bid effort will be "very respectful of the taxpayers' dollars as we always are," and will largely be privately funded. Earlier Thursday, Herbert said the repayment and legacy fund from the 2002 Olympics may be the way to go.
"It worked for us before," the governor said during the taping of his monthly news conference on KUED Ch. 7. "We've proven it to be successful. I think that's the good model for us to go forward (with)."
He said the $40 million is "really pretty minimal" given the price tag for hosting a future Winter Games, estimated at nearly $1.7 billion in a report done in 2012, the last time the state launched an exploratory committee in the hopes of bidding again.
It wasn't until Los Angeles was awarded the 2028 Summer Games that the U.S. Olympic Committee was ready to turn its attention to the Winter Games. A decision will be made by March 31, 2018, whether to advance an American city for 2026.
Because the International Olympic Committee recently awarded two Summer Games at the same time, host cities for both the 2026 and 2030 Winter Games could be chosen in 2019.
Bullock said he hopes to cut the proposed Winter Games budget by $400 million to make up for what would likely be less sponsorship revenue available for back-to-back Olympics in the United States.
He said that makes it difficult to include repaying the $40 million in the budget.
"Normally, if we weren't back-to-back Games, we'd try to do that," Bullock said, but with the need to cut back, "we have to save money everywhere. Everybody's got to play. In that budget there is no room to pay back money."
The budget is one of the focuses of the exploratory committee, expected to present a final report by Feb. 1, 2018. Other areas include an economic impact analysis, more details on venues, climate and environmental concerns and legal issues.
Robbins said members of the exploratory committee, which also includes business leaders and Olympians, may be biased toward "coming back ready, willing and able, but it doesn't mean we're not going to do a thorough job."