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Nagano mayor downplays cost concerns

The 1998 Winter Games here will leave behind a more "comfortable city" with new recreational facilities for the community, Nagano Mayor Tasuku Tsukada said Monday.

Tsukada dismissed concerns that the city and surrounding communities have spent too much on the Winter Games, which open on Saturday and continue through Feb. 22.The new arenas and other facilities constructed for the Winter Games carry a price tag of some $850 million, paid for by local and prefectural gov-ern-ments.

The expense has been described as extravagant, especially since many of Nagano's Olympic facilities will be converted for community use after the Games.

For example, the unusually shaped main press center will become a supermarket and a cultural hall, and the metal-domed figure-skating arena, a municipal gymnasium.

Only the architectural showpiece of the Games, the M-Wave speed-skating oval that has a specially constructed wood ceiling, will be maintained for international competition.

Utah taxpayers spent $59 million on facilities that will be used during the 2002 Winter Games, including the bobsled and luge track near Park City and the speed-skating oval at the Oquirrh Park Fitness Center in Kearns.

The Salt Lake Organizing Committee budgeted $170 million to ready the facilities for 2002. But SLOC will use money from corporate sponsors and other private sources and intends to repay the taxpayers' investment.

Salt Lake organizers don't expect to live up to the design standards set by Nagano because of budget constraints. Money is expected to be tighter after a review of the $1 billion-plus SLOC budget is completed later this year.

Nagano's investment has attracted money from the Japanese government for a new high-speed rail link to Tokyo and better highways. And the worldwide media exposure from the Games is expected to boost tourism, especially within Japan.

Minako Kobayashi, a housewife who commutes two hours a day to her volunteer post at the Nagano train station's information office, agreed that the Olympics are helping to expose the isolated region to the world.

"I think this is the first time for many non-Japanese to visit Nagano city," Kobayashi said. The same is true for many Japanese, who tend to see the city and surrounding communities as provincial.

She said she is enjoying meeting the English-speaking visitors who come into the office looking for help. Although English is studied for many years by Japanese schoolchildren, few adults speak the language.

And Kobayshi was clearly enjoying being on hand when the crown prince of Japan arrived at the station shortly after noon Monday from Tokyo. Thousands jammed the station to catch a glimpse of the prince and his princess.

"This is the first time I've seen them," Kobayshi said, straining to look past one of the many police officers on hand to control the respectful but clearly excited crowd.

The crown prince came to Nagano to open the 107th session of the International Olympic Committee at a special ceremony Monday. The IOC is scheduled to hear a progress report from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee on Wednesday.

Not everyone in Nagano is enthusiastic about the Olympics. Shoji Tokiwa, an account executive with a Nagano advertising agency, complained about the changes in the look of the city.

The names of Olympic sponsors are plastered on everything from buses to billboards. Special stores featuring Kodak film, VISA credit card services, Kirin beer and other sponsor products have opened along Nagano's main street.

"With all of the big sponsorships, it's kind of turned into a money war," Tokiwa said through an interpreter. "Their signs are everywhere. It's a little too much. But they need the money from sponsors."

But Chuo Street, which connects the train station to Nagano's top tourist attraction, Zenkoji Temple, also has plenty of stores selling everyday items including locally grown fruits and vegetables.

There's even an impromptu farmer's market down the street where the nightly medal ceremonies will be held. While workers rushed to complete the pavilion, farmers displayed baskets of apples and sweet potatoes.

A few stores had flags and costumes from other countries in their windows as part of a cultural exchange. A store featuring the Israeli flag sold incense burners and Buddhist icons.

Tokiwa also had some more practical concerns. The Olympics, he said, "does cause some problems to the people because their schedules are being interrupted, because of traffic restrictions."

The Nagano Organizing Committee is asking local residents not to use their cars during the 16 days of the Winter Games. They're hoping for a 30 percent reduction in traffic, according to Yamada Takashi, transport center manager.

The traffic restrictions are necessary, Takashi said through an interpreter, because "within the city of Nagano, there's normally a heavy traffic jam."

Nagano, which has a population of about 360,000, is expected to host 1.2 million visitors during the Olympics. How to make sure they can get where they want to go is a major concern of organizers.

Some roads will be closed to the public, including the two-lane route to Hakuba, the site of alpine skiing and ski jumping competitions. Others will have lanes reserved for Olympic traffic.

There are 1,500 cars equipped with on-board computers that provide directions through a satellite link, as well as 900 buses to transport athletes, officials and the media.