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One billion dollars give or take a couple million dollars.

Place a positive or negative sign in front of it and you've got what Olympics proponents or opponents estimate will be the economic legacy of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Utah.Making those forecasts were Jim Jardine, head of a pro-Olympics referendum committee, and Olympics critic Alexis Kelner. The two men faced off during a Monday debate sponsored by the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Citing figures compiled by the Salt Lake Winter Organizing Committee, Jardine, chairman of the newly named Olympics for Utah, Inc., said the Games could bring a positive $800 million to $900 million economic impact to the Beehive State.

Kelner, meanwhile, calculated the cost of the Games, including $200 million for a Salt Lake light-rail system and other ventures - such as a Great Salt Lake freshwater dike he associated with the Olympics - at just over $1 billion.

Jardine's committee is charged with convincing voters to support the Games during a November referendum, which local organizers have pledged to hold before pursuing further an Olympics bid with the International Olympics Committee.

"The issue that Utah voters are going to deal with in the fall is: Will the Olympics be good for the state . . . ? And I really believe the answer to that is a clear `yes,' " Jardine said.

Bringing the Olympics to Utah will enhance Utah's performance in the economic development arena, Jardine said, pointing to estimates that the Games will pump as much as $900 million into the state economy.

Jardine said the Olympics could boost Utah's standing in the destination ski market. Utah now garners 4 percent of that market, while Colorado captures 17 percent.

Some critics, however, have cautioned the Olympics could siphon funds from education. But Jardine said without the Games to "increase the size of the economic pie," further erosion of educational funding could occur.

Jardine said that while Utah has suffered through a mid-1980s slide into the economic trough, the state has also languished in a psychological trough.

"I believe this is one of the greatest opportunities to get us out of that," he said.

Kelner, eyeing the November referendum, noted public support for the Olympics has declined this year. Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed in a June 9 Deseret News poll support the Games - down from 76 percent that supported the Games in February.

"I'm very glad that the more people know about the Olympics, the more they go along with what we (the opposition) have to say," Kelner said.

Those same polls have shown increasing opposition to public funding for the Games, Kelner said. The same Deseret News poll showed only 45 percent of those surveyed favoring public Olympicsfunding. Forty-four percent opposed it.

The Utah Legislature this year agreed to funnel $4 million yearly in sales tax dollars into building Olympics facilities providing the Winter Games question passes the November referendum.

With high tax rates and low per capita income levels in the state, Olympics organizers still expect "each (Utah) household over the next 10 years to contribute anywhere from $100 to $150 . . . for the Games," Kelner said. "I think people will resent that," he added.

Jardine responded that only existing tax dollars are being redirected to the Olympics - money organizers have pledged to repay. Jardine calculated household contributions for the Games at only $6 to $7 per year between 1990 and 2002.

Kelner called organizer's assurances public money will be repaid an "Alice in Wonderland story."

The Olympics critic also slammed the Utah press for allowing what he called the media's support for the Games to become apparent in news presentations.


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Cook may back Games funding

Utah Independent Party founder Merrill Cook said he could support public funding for the 1998 Winter Olympics under certain conditions.

"The first step is that the risks be portrayed honestly and accurately," he said.

Additionally, if the state agrees to a tax cut resulting from its estimated $160 million surplus, Cook said he would favor state funding for the Games.

While Cook called plans to use $56 million in state funds for the Olympics tantamount to slipping a coin in a slot machine, he said "there are things worth risking money for."

The newly formed party is surveying members at county conventions and will vote on an Olympics question at its Aug. 26 state convention, said Cook, who made an unsuccessful bid for governor running on an anti-tax platform.