Not everyone is excited about the possibility another Olympics could be coming to Utah.
“You know, it’s all over the board,” Park City Mayor Nann Worel said about the mountain resort community’s feelings towards Utah’s bid for the 2030 or 2034 Winter Games. That’s why Park City and Summit County leaders are planning to survey residents this fall about the pluses and minuses of hosting again.
The intent of reaching out to residents, Worel said, isn’t to hold a referendum on the Games but to hear from Utahns living near venues from the 2002 Winter Games that are set to be used in a future Olympics, including ski resorts and the sliding track and ski jumps at the state’s Utah Olympic Park near Kimball Junction.
“I think it’s, ‘What are you concerned about if the Olympics come to Utah? What benefits do you see? How do you see the Olympics helping Park City and Summit County further their goals, such as in the area of sustainability?’” the mayor said, citing the city’s hopes of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2030.
The International Olympic Committee wants to align the Games with a community rather than the other way around, she said after having lunch with the IOC’s secretive, three-member technical inspection team during its visit to Utah in April as part of a new, less formal bid process.
Salt Lake City is bidding against Sapporo, Japan; Vancouver, Canada; and Barcelona, Spain, along with the Pyrenees mountain region. The field could be narrowed to a single candidate by the end of year, although the full IOC membership isn’t expected to formalize the pick until May 2023.
The race is heating up, with Salt Lake City and Sapporo considered the frontrunners and the possibility that both the 2030 and 2034 Winter Games could be awarded at the same time. This week, Utah bid officials are set to meet in person for the first time with IOC President Thomas Bach and other Olympic officials in Switzerland.
But even though Worel is a member of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games that’s behind the bid, she isn’t ready yet to state she supports bringing the Olympics back. Her role on the bid committee as an elected official is to represent the will of her constituents, she said.
“I don’t think I need to say,” Worel said when pressed for her personal opinion. “I’m interested to watch it all play out.”
‘It could be a unifying experience’
Summit County Councilwoman Malena Stevens, who’s also part of the bid committee, agreed expectations are mixed.
“There are members of our community that are very opposed and some that are very excited. And a lot of people that are somewhere in between,” Stevens said, including many who weren’t around for the 2002 Olympics and aren’t sure what another Winter Games could bring.
“There’s a lot of conjecture and misinformation, but also there’s a lot of concern right now just generally I would say, with growth and traffic specifically, as well as affordable housing and the impact that having another Games could have on the area,” the councilwoman said.
Twenty years ago the Olympics were seen as a way to “get Utah on the map, and Salt Lake City and Park City, and becoming kind of world-class destination areas. That was very successful,” she said, adding, “I think there’s fear that that would happen again, that if we had (another) Olympics, it would be a large growth inducer.”
As Worel puts it, when it comes to using the Olympics to attract more people, Park City has “been there, done that.”
Stevens said the area has already been grappling with “a pretty significant surge” in both residents and tourists during the COVID-19 pandemic that’s left even relative newcomers worried “this place won’t be as great as it once was. ... That’s a real concern. That’s a legitimate concern. We all want to keep loving where we live.”
But holding another Olympics “doesn’t necessarily need to be an invitation for everyone to come move here” or even visit, the councilwoman said. Instead, “It could be a unifying experience, if we approach it in an appropriate and collaborative way,” she said, that can leave behind long-term benefits, such as expanded mass transit.
Listening to the public
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who co-chairs the bid’s host venue community group with Worel, said during a recent presentation at a meeting of the larger bid committee that it will be up to local leaders in places where Winter Games events would be held to decide how best to assess what benefits they’d like to see.
Mendenhall assured the community, business and sports representatives behind the bid that the venue communities’ efforts “will be in partnership with our Olympic organizing team here. Hand-in-hand, they’ll assist to make sure that we’re producing things that we can really return to the communities.”
The mayor invited the bid committee members to participate, telling them, “Know that whether it’s air quality, transportation, transit opportunities, community access to the events of the Games and all the work leading up to it, these conversations are happening.”
Fraser Bullock, president and CEO of the bid committee, said the Salt Lake City mayor’s message kicked off a new phase in the effort to bring the Olympics back to the state. Bullock said while past polling put support for the bid at well over 80%, there still needs to be a way for the public to be heard.
Taxpayers aren’t being asked to help pick up the $2.2 billion cost, but Bullock said backers of the bid want to understand what Utahns “would like to see accomplished through these Olympics. And if anybody has a concern, we want to understand that,” along with ways those concerns might be mitigated.
“Our focus now is, how do we take that strong support and make sure we’re listening carefully to the people,” he said, adding there have already been some meetings with officials in venue communities, including in Park City earlier this year. “Now, we’re going to do a much broader outreach.”
Looking for ‘a legacy that everyone feels good about’
A coalition ranging from labor leaders to environmental activists to good government advocates, however, had hoped to be talking about the impact of the Olympics much sooner. Members of the Utah Community Benefit Coalition announced in the fall of 2019 a set of standards they’d like to see followed by a future Winter Games.
Their vision of an Olympics embraced “the values of inclusion, fairness and sustainability,” including ensuring affordable housing, jobs that pay a living wage, better public transportation, additional homeless services, accessibility, civil rights protections and environmental safeguards.
And while acknowledging all of their goals might not be achieved, the coalition insisted it hoped to strengthen Utah’s bid by showing how hosting would benefit the community. But its work was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic and only recently started to resume.
The coalition has met with some local leaders, including Mendenhall, who mentioned during the bid committee meeting that members had started thinking several years ago about what the benefits of another Olympics could be.
“The goals we had when we had the press conference are the goals we would still have now,” said Bill Tibbitts, the coalition’s leader and Crossroads Urban Center’s deputy executive director and director of the Coalition of Religious Communities.
The most pressing issue where the Olympics could help — or hurt — the state is the lack of affordable housing, he said.
“We are already in a bit of an affordable housing crisis. If the Games are not going to exacerbate that, we need to have some strong leadership,” Tibbitts said, suggesting the Olympics could be a catalyst for the state helping to fund new housing for low- and middle-income residents, including refugees and seniors.
There are no housing projects in the Olympic bid, which calls for once again using existing student dorms at the University of Utah to house athletes from around the world, along with at least 17,000 hotel rooms for officials, sponsors, broadcasters, media and others directly associated with the Winter Games.
Tibbitts said he worries that financially strapped residents could be temporarily displaced by landlords that raise their rates to make more money from Olympic visitors. In 2002, he said some week-to-week renters were forced to trade their cheap motel rooms for beds in an emergency homeless shelter set up in a mattress warehouse.
“If you do it right,” Tibbitts said, “the community as a whole benefits and not just the people who are already doing well. So I think it’s important to plan so this becomes something with a legacy that everyone feels good about and not just something that benefited, again, the people who didn’t need help.”
Did the 2002 Olympics cause Utah’s growing pains?
One retired state and local official, Stuart Reid, doesn’t see the benefits of another Olympics. In fact, Reid believes many of the state’s current growth-related issues, including the housing crunch, can be blamed on hosting the Winter Games two decades ago.
He holds the 2002 Olympics responsible for attracting too many people too quickly to Utah.
“The stated purpose of the Olympics was to create an attraction to Utah. In other words, it was intended to be an economic engine. And it certainly was that,” said Reid, a former Salt Lake City councilman and Utah state senator who also served in economic development for Salt Lake City and Ogden.
But holding the Games in Utah then “opened up growth and all of the negative consequences from that growth. Where if we hadn’t had the Olympics, obviously we’d still have growth but it would have been growth that I think we could have managed much better than we’re able to manage it today,” he said.
Instead of the Olympics “putting everything into hyperdrive,” Reid argued growth would have been “slower, over an extended period of time versus the tremendous growth we’ve had in the past 20 years.” Utah experienced record population increases post-Games and the state’s population is already set to more than double by 2060.
While there were positives from hosting the Games, like an expanded economy that added more jobs and the chance “to reshape the image, the branding of Utah,” those came at too high a cost, the former Democrat turned Republican said.
“It’s pretty obvious. I mean, we have growth that is pretty difficult to sustain. We have housing costs that are pushing the poor out of the market, young couples out of the market and making it really difficult,” Reid said, adding there are also traffic congestion and air quality concerns that go along with a population boom.
“We are suffering the consequences of that growth now. Why do we need the Olympics to spur the growth (and) intensify it further? What’s the point of that other than making us feel good about ourselves? In other words, making us feel like we’re important, that we’re admirable in some way as a state,” he said.
“That’s what it’s about, it’s an opportunity for cheerleading,” Reid said. “I’m questioning why is that necessary at this point.”
‘A place to come and unify’
The state’s homelessness coordinator, Wayne Niederhauser, a former state Senate president and an early leader of the bid effort, said Utah would have experienced “phenomenal” growth due to its business friendly policies even without the 2002 Winter Games.
“I don’t think it was the cause. I think it sped things up some, because Utah was being discovered and would have been discovered regardless of the Olympics,” Niederhauser said, adding, “I don’t think there’s going to be much more discovery of Utah. I think the world knows about Utah.”
He said as a bid insider, he learned a lot about the reasons for hosting again.
Last time, Niederhauser said, many did view the Olympics as a way to showcase the state for economic gain.
“But that’s not why you do it. You do it to bring nations together. That’s what the Olympic movement is about,” he said. Utah is ready to step up again, Niederhauser said, because not only are the venues from 2002 still in use, the state can once again provide “an amazing population who will volunteer and be involved.”
It would be “pompous,” he said, to suggest Utah wouldn’t be getting something back by welcoming the world again. Another Olympics is estimated to have a $3.9 billion economic impact on Utah, down from $6 billion in 2002, according to a recent analysis by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
“I don’t feel like we want to state, ‘Hey we’re giving this gift to the world.’ No. This is something about just being a good world citizen and a good world contributor to a good cause,” Niederhauser said. “We’re in a position to do it. Why not do it and offer the world a place to come and unify?”