Atlanta's Olympic year $1.7 billion gamble: City goes for the gold, gets to keep the stadiums.

March 30, 1996

IT WAS THE second-fastest-growing American metropolitan area in the first four years of this decade even without the Olympics. And this year, Atlanta also has the Summer Olympics.

Atlanta is betting that in the 17 days starting July 19, three billion people will watch on television and two million will visit to watch more athletes from more countries compete in more events anywhere ever. And it is betting that 80,000 Atlantans will have gained at least temporary employment and some $5 billion will have been pumped into the economy.

The bet itself was $1.71 billion at last count, and rising every few months. The original bet was that all this could be done with private funds, as in Los Angeles in 1984. But last year, Atlanta voters approved a $150 million bond issue for the municipal share of the frantic face-lift going on, and the budgeting remains a close thing.

In fact, Atlanta was surprised that its slick but imprecise bid in 1990 won the 1996 Summer Games over the favorite, Athens, site of the original modern Olympiad one century earlier. The acclaimed success of Atlanta's civil rights revolution was what won out. Former Mayor (and rights crusader) Andrew Young was the great promoter for the project of William Payne, the head of the private organizing committee. Mr. Payne's original vision is much scaled down in the implementation.

The result is solid improvements that will stand after the Games end. The Olympic Village will become dormitories for Georgia Tech. The Olympic Stadium will be home to the Atlanta Braves. Smaller arenas will belong to the six primarily black colleges of Atlanta University. There will be 2,500 new trees, four major new parks including the 60-acre Centennial Park in the city center, 12 miles of renovated thoroughfares and six redeveloped neighborhoods. Not to mention flophouses renovated into apartments and other privately financed amenities.

Publicity for the conditions of the outdoor events in the heat of an Atlanta July may not attract more summer tourists in the near future. But the bushes are being beaten worldwide by promoters to attract 20 more corporate headquarters and regional facilities in three years, based on the prominence the Games afford. It is a promising pitch.

Atlanta is a smaller city with a more dynamic downtown in a larger metropolitan area than Baltimore, farther from anywhere and capital of a larger hinterland. Forget the Southern cliches. What Atlanta has in abundance is entrepreneurial energy. That's what won the Games.

Pub Date: 3/30/96

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