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S.L. all gussied up for Oly date

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I took a walk around the city yesterday to see how things are shaping up as the 2002 Games countdown hits single digits.

When I moved back to Utah from California 3 1/2 years ago, a big magnet for me was the Olympics. (Another big magnet was employment; not nearly enough of you had bought my book on how the Waldholtzes went through Congress and $6 million in less than two years. I needed a steady job).

But I was curious. I wanted to see how Salt Lake City and Utah would do with the Olympics.

Back then, in the summer of 1998, Main Street was ripped up, the freeway was ripped up, Rice-Eccles Stadium was ripped up, the Salt Palace was about to be ripped up, and maybe most unsettling of all, they'd torn down the Deseret Gym, leaving an exposed hole in the ground where a city icon had stood for almost a century.

Three-and-a-half years ago, there was no Conference Center, or for that matter, no Gateway and no Grand America Hotel. There also was no such thing as an operational freeway or light rail.

Remember the old orange-cone days?

Now here it is, nine days to go, and the city that wasn't is the city that is. Grand America is renting rooms at $375 a night — at the low end. The Conference Center looks like a 21st-century rendition of Solomon's Temple — 20,000 seats and not a basketball court in sight. The Salt Palace is a third again as big as it used to be. And that star-crossed parking lot between 300 and 200 West where the tornado of '99 went through? It's now an Olympic Medals Square.

The Gateway has burst to life on the other side of the Delta Center; light rail, or TRAX as it's come to be called, stretches from Sandy to downtown and from downtown to Rice-Eccles Stadium, which is 25,000 seats bigger than it used to be.

Main Street is Main Street again, with the exception of the block between South Temple and North Temple, which is now a renovated pedestrian plaza; the I-15 freeway is the I-15 freeway again, but with more lanes, car pool exits and, in the center of it all, the spaghetti bowl.

In 3 1/2 years, all this and more has happened — to say nothing of all the changes in the Olympic outposts of Provo, Ogden, West Valley City, Park City and the Heber Valley.

This keeps up and there goes the image of city workers leaning on their shovels.

The Olympics, it is obvious, have fast-forwarded everything. Roads and buildings and developments that might otherwise have taken 10 years and more are ready now. Other upgrades are everywhere. There are "Look Both Ways" signs on the streets, there are countdown clocks at the crosswalks, there are face-lifts on buildings downtown, and be honest, when is the last time you drove over a pothole?

Our tall buildings are draped in Olympic wraps, our light poles are flying Olympic flags, our university has a brand-new student housing village, and our Delta Center has five interlocking rings across the front.

There's even snow on the sidewalks.

About the only thing not in place is the Olympic flame — and it's on its way.

This city isn't what it used to be 3 1/2 years ago. It's amazing what can happen when 2 million people are coming to pay you a visit and another 3 billion are going to tune in to watch.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.