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'02 budget a balancing act

SLOC is continually fighting costs, Romney says

Balancing the more than $1.3 billion budget for the 2002 Winter Games "is not a slam-dunk," Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Mitt Romney warned Thursday.

"Once you begin talking about being able to break even, everyone assumes, 'Oh, that's taken care of.' It is not taken care of. It is virtually the daily task . . . of our team to try to keep our costs down, eliminate risk and increase revenue," he said.

During a wide-ranging discussion with the Deseret News editorial board, Romney said some $20 million still needs to be raised from corporate sponsors and donors to cover unexpected expenses, including renting two additional floors at the American Stores building.

The actual gap in SLOC's budget is still about $60 million, but Romney said he is comfortable making up the difference from the $140 million contingency fund. At one time, organizers had said the entire gap could be covered by the contingency fund.

Now, though, the organizing committee has identified new costs and increased risks.

For example, SLOC had planned on leasing only six floors in the distinctive downtown office building on Main Street. But now, Romney said, eight floors are going to be needed to make room for food service, technology and ceremonies workers.

Also, he said, organizers have decided they need to set up tents and other temporary structures at venues sooner than the week allowed for in the budget. That means renting space and equipment for longer periods of time.

The troubled U.S. economy also has Romney worried. "The recession — I shouldn't say recession. The slowdown gives us some pause," he said. "We have some 60 sponsors. Will they all be able to financially meet the very generous obligations they've undertaken?"

Two unnamed companies have already approached SLOC looking to reduce the amount of cash they're providing as part of their sponsorship deals. Sponsors typically have agreed to contribute a mix of cash, merchandise and services worth at as much as $50 million.

That hasn't hurt SLOC's budget so far, Romney said. "But there are big companies out there that are taking hits," he said. While they have a legal obligation to meet the terms of their contracts, organizers could end up with nothing if a company goes bankrupt.

Ticket sales, too, were a concern. Romney said the $180 million in sales budgeted was "rather aggressive." While sales have gone well, he noted that with all the good seats gone, organizers still need to sell $20 million in tickets to meet that goal.

Still, he said, the largest areas of risk to the SLOC budget have been eliminated in the last year, including more than $70 million required from the federal government for transportation needs including park-and-ride lots.

"I really don't know what we would have done. We literally talked to the governor at one time about parking cars on I-80" and having spectators wait for buses to Park City and other venues, Romney said.

Organizers were prepared to dramatically scale back the number of seats available at the venues had Congress not appropriated the money. For example, he said, there would have been 4,000 tickets available for ski jumping, not 20,000.

"At this stage, I do predict break-even. I do predict we will be able to repay the $59 million (provided by Utah taxpayers for facilities construction) and we'll put in place the $40 million endowment (to run the venues after the Games.) I think most Games would call that a profit. We call it break-even."

Romney said when he first took over the organizing committee two years ago in the wake of the bribery scandal surrounding Salt Lake City's Olympic bid, he wasn't sure all those obligations to state and local taxpayers would be met.

Organizers also owe nearly $40 million to the state for the use of the University of Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games and the new student housing for the athletes' Olympic Village.

Romney was also enthusiastic about the organizing committee's plans for nightly celebrations during the Games in downtown Salt Lake City. He said detailed plans for the medals plaza will be unveiled at the March 8 meeting of the SLOC Management Committee.

"In effect, it's a Delta Center outside," Romney said, calling the plaza where athletes will receive their Olympic medals in nightly ceremonies "an extraordinary facility." It is now a parking lot owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The site has been controversial because alcohol will not be served in the medals plaza, although beer will be available throughout the nine blocks of downtown being fenced off for the nightly celebrations.

Romney downplayed the issue, saying organizers won't limit the availability of alcohol. "We want to make sure we're gracious hosts," he said. "The last thing we want is for people to come and say it was awful, it was boring."

That includes setting up a "Bud World" area complete with the brewery's famous Clydesdales within the celebration area, where Olympic sponsor Anheuser-Busch will be able to sell beer.