SBJ/January 9 - 15, 2006/Other News

Atlanta officials measure Olympics legacy in infrastructure gains, rebranding of city

Before the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, the area between downtown Atlanta’s major hotels and the Georgia World Congress Center was a blighted wasteland of empty warehouses with broken windows that convention-goers felt nervous traversing.

A decade later, the $57 million Centennial Olympic Park provides not just an aesthetically pleasing and safe urban corridor but is a vibrant hub of concerts and family activities ringed by hotels, restaurants, theaters, loft residences and the city’s most highly anticipated new attractions, the $200 million Georgia Aquarium and a new, grander World of Coca-Cola set to open in 2007.

Some people have said the Olympics did not jump-start Atlanta as a tourist destination as the Games did for Barcelona, Spain, but city hospitality industry leaders say it’s just taken time to reap the benefits from the new infrastructure created, the relationships forged and the confidence to rebrand a Southern city into an international hub.

Indeed, the Olympics’ long-term impact on Atlanta can be felt right now, 10 years later, more than ever, said Spurgeon Richardson, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“The Olympics were the spark that provided all of this unprecedented growth in this city,” he said. “I really believe that the next three to five years will be the greatest in Atlanta in terms of numbers of visitors coming.”

The Games’ first direct benefit to Atlanta’s hospitality industry was in awareness, Richardson said. Two million people from around the world visited Atlanta during the Olympics, while an additional 3.5 billion viewed the Summer Games and concurrent coverage on the city on television.

“All of a sudden, people knew Atlanta,” Richardson said.

That visibility helped in keeping the now “international city” on top of its already flourishing event and convention business, another prime generator of travel and hospitality dollars, said Cindy Fowler, CEO and founder of Presenting Atlanta, who served on the bid committee to bring the Olympics to Atlanta.

“The mere fact that we held, attendancewise, the largest of any Olympics meant that there was no fear that we couldn’t handle the size of any meeting,” she said.

That extra boost also can be clearly linked to Atlanta’s hosting of two Super Bowls, the 2002 NCAA Final Four and other large sporting events, said R. Mark Woodworth, executive vice president of PFK Consulting Inc.

“Was there a quantum leap in the level of tourism in Atlanta? The answer is clearly ‘No,’” he said. “On the other hand, have more people come and visited Atlanta since the Olympics? The answer is clearly ‘Yes.’”

More than $2 billion of construction and capital improvements completed between 1990 and 1996 also helped the city pass the acid test of large event organizers, said Gary Stokan, president of the Atlanta Sports Council.

That new building flurry included Turner Field (built as Centennial Olympic Stadium), the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center, 6,000 hotel rooms added in 1995-96, the renovation of the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum and airport, hotel, highway and streetscape improvements.

“Without the facilities of Turner Field, we would not have won the bid for the 2000 Major League Baseball All-Star Game,” Stokan said.

This story was originally published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle, an affiliated publication.

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