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Will Heber be another Canmore?

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WASATCH COUNTY ? Million-dollar homes, throngs of tourists and pricey sport utility vehicles didn't exist in Canmore, Canada, 15 years ago.

But that was before the 1988 Olympic Winter Games, when some 1,750 athletes from 57 nations converged on Calgary for the first Games held north of the U.S. border.

Canmore, the site of the cross-country and biathlon events, was largely a coal mining town that had nearly gone bust after the last mine closed in 1979.

"There were people who thought that Canmore might die out entirely," said David Burke, editor of the Canmore Leader, the town's weekly newspaper.

Only a 15-minute drive from Banff's skiing, few people paid respect to Canmore. The same could be said for Utah's Heber Valley, a 15-minute drive from Park City's tinseled resorts.

Like its Canadian neighbor to the north, Heber Valley, site of the 2002 cross-country, biathlon and Nordic combined events, has seen its share of economic downturns. Not too many years ago the area's population largely supported itself through agricultural, ranching and mining jobs.

"Frankly, Wasatch County has always been on the low end of the per capita bend ? basically low-paying jobs," said Robyn Pearson, Wasatch County's community and economic development director. "There was a time that motels and cafes closed down for the winter."

For Canmore, the haze of obscurity lifted as millions of people tuned in their television sets to the Alberta Canadian Rockies towering above a picturesque town of roughly 3,000 residents.

"Basically, the Olympics put Canmore on the map, and that's where we slowly evolved from just a little coal-mining, unheard-of town to a tourist area," said Annette Plummer, a Canmore real estate agent. "Since the Olympics we have seen major changes."

Look for those changes to be multiplied in the Heber Valley as the Olympics push another small town onto the world's radar.

Unlike Canmore, the Heber Valley began its journey to distinction in the early 1990s as new highways and the completion of the Jordanelle Dam created improved access to more recreation opportunities.

In addition, home buyers in search of the pastoral lifestyle began fleeing the congestion and pollution of the Wasatch Front.

Now Heber Valley, with a population of roughly 15,000 residents, waits for its moment of Olympic glory.

If Canmore is any indication, the most colossal changes are yet to come.

Following the Olympics, Canmore's housing market shot up, growth rates hit as high as 10 percent and tourism became the town's top industry.

Canmore's population has nearly quadrupled since 1988 to 11,000 residents.

Starter homes that once sold for $25,000 now average $240,000. Upscale homes in neighborhoods like SilverTip start around $600,000.

"I think most people would say that the community has definitely become more well-heeled ? less of the old-timers just hanging on and more people with nice SUVs and certainly people with more money," Burke said.

Although Heber Valley's average home prices today nearly mirror Canmore's ? the average price of a home selling in the third quarter hit $235,000 ? Bob Mathis, Wasatch County's Olympics officer, said the biggest changes to the valley lie ahead.

Among the changes will be the addition of a new 36-hole golf course this spring, adjacent to the valley's Olympic venue, where vacationers will be able to book tee times simultaneously with their hotel reservations.

Canmore boasts three 18-hole golf courses with another two courses in neighboring communities.

"I think possibly we could mimic Canmore in that the real changes could be ahead of us," Pearson said. "Communities would pay millions of dollars to get the kind of publicity we are going to get."

E-MAIL: danderton@desnews.com