Does Utah know what's coming?

  • Salt Lake City, Utah

    Diane Sylvain
  • Bob sledders

    SLOC photo
  • Ted Wilson, former Salt Lake City mayor

    Lynn R. Johnson
  • Frank Joklik, Salt Lake Organizing Committee president

    Rolf Kay
  • Closed highway signs in Utah

    Larry Warren photo
  • Cartoon: Utah Olympic mascots

    Pat Bagley/The Salt Lake Tribune
 

Note: see end of this feature story for a list of three accompanying sidebar articles.

In four years, thousands of reporters and spectators will crowd hillsides and stadiums around Salt Lake City to watch the world's top skiers, skaters, bobsledders and other athletes muscle for medals in the world's biggest winter sporting event. Competition will be fierce, but in some ways, the games will be pale imitations of the intense struggle that brought the Olympics to Utah.

That struggle ignited in 1984, as Salt Lake City warmed up for its fifth attempt at winning the Winter Olympics. Unlike previous modest efforts to bring the games to town, this push was urgent. Utah was at the center of a regionwide recession. Jobs were scarce, bankruptcy rampant and young people were fleeing the state in search of work. The average Utahn made less in a year than residents of any other state except Mississippi.

"We were desperate," recalls Ted Wilson, who was Salt Lake City's mayor from 1976 to 1985. "There was a tremendous lack of confidence. It was almost an inferiority complex. The Olympics were a way to buy our way out of that."

Among those looking for a cure were politicians, state and city planners, Mormon church leaders and Utah's ski industry. The Olympics also had great appeal for many Salt Lakers who have long disliked the city's home-by-6:00 reputation, best expressed by the baseball cap that read, "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may be in Utah." The games would be a chance to show the world Utah knows how to party.

Alexis Kelner, one of Salt Lake's pre-eminent environmental gadflies, was one of the first to suggest that the Olympics were not what Utah needed. Since the early days of Salt Lake's courtship with the games, Kelner and an energetic band of activists had plastered the town with bumper stickers reading, "SAVE OUR CANYONS" and "UTAH YES - OLYMPICS NO!'

Now, they doubled their efforts, trying to convince politicians, land managers and the general public that the games would leave the Wasatch Mountains forever scarred.

Nonetheless, in 1985, Mayor Wilson took Salt Lake's proposal for the 1990 games to the U.S. Olympic Committee, which turned it down in favor of Anchorage, Alaska. The International Olympic Committee then rejected Anchorage in favor of Albertville, France.

The rejection only made Utah's Olympic fever hotter. In 1989, to please the U.S. Olympic Committee, Olympic boosters asked Utah voters to spend $59 million in tax money up front on ski jumps, bobsled and luge tracks, ice skating rinks and other facilities.

Kelner took his cue from Denver Olympic opponents, who had convinced Colorado voters to turn down the 1976 winter games. He joined forces with an equally outspoken group of tax protesters who argued that the Olympics were a financial boondoggle that would benefit the rich, while leaving Utah with the tab.

More bumper stickers appeared: "NO TAX $$$ FOR ," and, "HAVE WE GOT A LUGE FOR YOU!" Kelner even wrote a critical book, Utah's Olympic Circus, and mailed a copy to every member of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

But Utah's Olympic fever proved too much for opponents. By 57 percent to 43 percent, the voters opted to put $59 million down. Two years later, Gov. Norm Bangerter stepped behind the games, pledging that the state would share any deficit with Salt Lake City.

Under Ted Wilson's successor, Palmer DePaulis, the city tried for the 1998 Olympics, but those games went to Nagano, Japan.

Finally, in 1995, a decade of hard work and the $59 million gamble paid off when the International Olympic Committee decided Salt Lake City would be the place in 2002.

Times change

But the 1995 decision did not have the economic meaning it would have had in 1985; Utah's desperate days were over. By the early 1990s, state and local incentives had brought enough software and electronics companies to the Salt Lake area to earn it the title, "the second Silicon Valley." Utah's ski industry also picked up speed, service jobs multiplied, and baby boomers flocked to the Wasatch Front for its rugged backdrop and easy access to the mountains.

The growth pushed an already sprawling city even further. Salt Lake City flowed west toward the Great Salt Lake and up the foothills to the east. Suburbs brushed elbows with Ogden to the north and Provo to the south, forming a nearly continuous metropolis stretching almost 100 miles along the base of the Wasatch Mountains.

Today, the greater Wasatch area is home to 80 percent of the state's population, 1.6 million people. Thanks in large part to the state's high birth rate, that number is rising at twice the national average.

Population growth has brought more smog, gridlock and crime, while squeezing water supplies, open space and farmland.

"We're starting to look like L.A.," says Ted Wilson, gazing down on Salt Lake City from his office at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Wilson now wonders if the Olympics were such a good idea. "When I see the growth and the impacts it's having, I'm not sure we need any more promotion," he says. "It's not like we need to go out and sell Utah any more. People know about us. Our biggest problem is trying to fit them all in."

He is not the only one having second thoughts. With the Olympics just four years off, the Wasatch Front's frenzied growth has hit its highest pitch yet. The rush to get ready for 2002 has already thrown some tough questions - and a harsh glimpse of the future - squarely in Utah's face.

Life in the slow lane

Interstate 15 is where the ongoing growth and the Olympics collide. The six-lane speedway runs north-south through the heart of the Salt Lake Valley, tying the metropolitan area together. It was built in the early 1960s, and was soon congested. In the early 1990s, the Utah Department of Transportation came up with a plan to expand the road section by section over at least 10 years.

Then came the promise of the Olympics, and the 10-year timetable was compressed into five years. The 17-mile expressway will be completely rebuilt and widened at the breathtaking cost of $1.6 billion. Suddenly, Utah has the biggest public-works project under construction anywhere in America.

Motivated by multimillion-dollar early-completion bonuses, highway contractors are moving with extraordinary, and disruptive, speed. Overnight, bridges are demolished, interchanges closed. Westbound Interstate 80 comes to a dead halt at Salt Lake's State Street. Signs warn "Freeway closed ahead," and rows of orange barrels shunt all traffic onto surface streets. "Closed" signs are plastered over exits promising routes to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Idaho.

Traffic accidents are way up. Hospital medical helicopters are doing one-third more business than a year ago, flying over traffic snarls to pluck victims from construction-spawned wrecks. Road rage has become so epidemic that the Utah Highway Patrol has launched a courteous driving campaign.

To compound difficulties, the Utah Transit Authority is tearing out more roads to build a light-rail system, and the Utah Transportation Department has been working at the last minute to widen some key arterial side streets as alternate routes.

One frustrated motorist, Bob Cameron from Calgary, Alberta, wrote the Salt Lake Tribune last summer, "I guess we should be satisfied we escaped with our lives. The highway more resembles the deck of an aircraft carrier launching jets than a freeway with a speed limit."

Though Utah's representatives continue to use the Olympics as bait for federal highway money, Olympic organizers are quick to draw a distinction. "Let's not confuse I-15 construction with the Olympics," cautions Salt Lake Organizing Committee President Frank Joklik. "That's a popular misconception."

Joklik is partly right. The road work was going to be done eventually. But the Olympics sped up the process, and drew in more funds to get the job done.

Living in an immense construction zone has made many Utahns realize that, whatever its source, unrestricted growth is taking a toll on the Wasatch Front's laid-back way of life, says Wendy Fisher, executive director of Utah Open Lands, a Park City-based land trust. "People are sitting in their cars saying, "This is ridiculous. This is not what I moved to Utah for." "

A wake-up call?

There's more growth on the way, according to Philip Emmi, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Utah. While the Olympics will have only a small effect on Utah's overall growth, the games will have a large impact on what that growth will look like.

"In creating infrastructure to meet the needs of the Olympics," says Emmi, "we are making important decisions with respect to the future direction of growth." By building up freeways and other roads, he says, the state is encouraging the metro area to sprawl out through the Salt Lake Valley and into the mountains to the east. Subdivisions will devour wildlife habitat and inundate small towns.

If Utah continues along this track, by 2050 the Wasatch Front will see 5 million people - a population facing longer commutes and more pea-soup smog - according to Envision Utah, a group of government planners, business leaders and citizen groups. Cities and suburbs, expected to quadruple from 320 square miles to 1,350 square miles, will swallow more than half the region's irrigated farmland.

"Utah needs to learn to say when," says Wendy Fisher, but "it's tough to go from "growth is good" to "maybe growth is really painful and addictive." "

Making that switch is particularly difficult in a state enamored of local government, private property rights, large families and market-based decisions. Utah's Republican-run state Legislature routinely shoots down any initiatives for statewide planning, zoning or conservation.

But the rush to get ready for the Olympics may give Utah a kick in the pants. "Planning isn't something you've got to get done tomorrow," says Brad Barber with the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget. "It's easy to put planning on the back burner. But the games create a deadline."

Barber is working with Envision Utah to explore the state's alternatives. Armed with $2.5 million and veteran planners from Berkeley, Calif., and Portland, Ore., the group will spend two years studying possible futures for the Wasatch Front. Barber hopes that Envision Utah's cooperative approach will be more fruitful than working from the state level down.

"We're doing just about all we can do," he says. "There's more planning going on today than any time in the past few decades."

Wendy Fisher is also hopeful. While the state Legislature languishes, the public is starting to catch on, she says. "The majority of Utah does want open space and does want to preserve their way of life."

Whose games are they?

But preparing for the long haul is not at the front of most Utahns' minds. The Olympics have raised more pressing questions: Who pays for the games, and who benefits?

From the beginning, Salt Lake Olympic organizers have promised to use media royalties and private donations to repay the $59 million taxpayers put into sports facilities, and to ask for no more public money. But that pledge looks less and less likely to be fulfilled. In 1989, when Utahns made the initial investment, the Organizing Committee said the games would probably cost $456 million. Within months of the referendum, the estimate was $950 million; guesses now range from $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion.

Gov. Michael Leavitt roused fears in February while visiting the Olympics in Nagano, Japan. He told the Deseret News Utah would have to put more tax money into supporting the games.

The comments drew a heated response from the Utah Legislature, where Rep. Bill Hickman of Saint George seethed, "I'd hate to be the one (that the Organizing Committee) sends up here with his hand out. He'll be shot full of arrows."

Meanwhile, Utah's congressional delegation was talking about asking the nation to share the Olympic tab. Awed by the $13 billion Nagano spent on bullet trains, skating rinks and the rest of the Olympic production, Rep. Merrill Cook, a newly elected conservative Republican, told the Salt Lake Tribune, "It's very important for Congress to understand that the Salt Lake City Olympics are truly American games." Cook and Utah Sen. Robert Bennett promised to ask Congress for funding to help with security and transportation.

The cost revelations came as no surprise to long-time Olympic opponents like Stephen Pace, who helped start the "truth posse" Utahns for Responsible Public Spending during the 1989 referendum. He puts a cynical twist on former Colorado Rep. Richard Lamm's phrase that persuaded his state to ban public spending on the 1976 winter Olympics: "These are rich men's games paid for by poor men's taxes."

"The Olympics always play out on the same script," says Pace. "You've got the big-time media which sells professional athletes to advertisers. Then you have pretentious ne'er-do-wells on the International Olympic Committee and local rip-off artists who suck up the money. And naive star-struck politicians write a blank check to pay off the Olympics when they run out of money - which they always do."

Who wins?

It's true. Every winter Olympics in the last 50 years has either run into the red, or been subsidized or bailed out by taxpayers. Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee, which owns the Olympic trademark - five intertwined rings - makes out like a bandit.

The committee takes a large percentage of the television royalties right off the top. Its 118 members are hand-picked by president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who was a longtime official under Spain's former fascist leader Francisco Franco. Bob Simon of 60 Minutes recently called the group "a smattering of royals and nobles, sporting czars, Olympians, businessmen, directors of Coca-Cola, Visa, Samsung, which also happen to be sponsors of the Games." The group's meetings and books, he added, are closed.

In Salt Lake City, the Organizing Committee's 32-member Board of Directors reads like a "who's who" of the power elite of Utah. The board's president, Frank Joklik, is the former chief of Utah's giant Kennecott Copper company. Also on the list are bankers, ski industry higher-ups, industrial bigwigs and sports advocates, including ski racer Picabo Street. While there have been some efforts to include community groups, the committee's executive board consists exclusively of politicians, international and U.S. Olympic Committee members and businessmen.

It's no secret that some of these officials are using the games to pad their pocketbooks. Alan Layton, the contractor rebuilding the University of Utah's football stadium for the opening ceremonies, sits on the board. So do Nicholas Badami and Gordon Strachan, both associated with Park City Mountain Resort, which will contract for Olympic ski races.

The most striking example is Earl Holding, owner of Sinclair Oil, Little America hotels and Sun Valley Ski Resort, who sits on the board's executive committee. In 1994, under the Olympic banner, Holding worked a lucrative land trade at his Snowbasin Ski Resort.

After a lengthy public process and much compromise, the Forest Service had offered to trade Holding 700 acres at the resort's base. But with Salt Lake Olympic organizers eying Snowbasin for the downhill ski races, Holding simply went to the U.S. Congress, where Utah Republican Rep. James Hansen helped him sidestep environmental laws and accrue 1,350 acres for a four-season resort (HCN, 6/24/96).

Then last spring, Holding hired Gray Reynolds to run Snowbasin. As a top official with the U.S. Forest Service, Reynolds had testified at congressional hearings that the land swap had the Clinton administration's blessing. And while Reynolds bristles at claims that his new job has any connection to his congressional testimony, it doesn't look good.

Now, Utah congressmen are asking for $15 million in federal money to build a new road to Snowbasin, a project Holding had promised to fund himself. And in 2002, the Organizing Committee will pay Holding $13.8 million to rent Snowbasin for the downhill races and lease his land in downtown Salt Lake.

Meanwhile, executive committee meetings are held behind closed doors, and though organizers have been promising an up-to-date budget since last fall, nothing has materialized.

All this has some community leaders feeling used. "The citizens approved the $60 million to help get the bid and promote the Olympics," says John Cushing, mayor of Bountiful and president of the Utah Association of Cities and Towns. Olympic organizers "have a responsibility to let the public be a part of the process."

It's Utah's move

The Salt Lake Organizing Committee's Frank Joklik denies that the Olympics are a moneymaking scheme for corporate interests. "The inspiration of the Olympics for our young people can't be measured," says the self-described "Olympic nut."

"They'll bring incredible economic activity and increased tax levies," he adds. "No one need fear they'll be shortchanged."

Salt Lake City Olympic Coordinator Renee Tanner is also optimistic. "The Olympics are a great lever to help get funding for projects we need over the long term," she says, pointing to federal money that is paying to rebuild I-15, a new light-rail system and the city's "Gateway District." She also expects the games to boost the state's tourism industry.

Former Salt Lake City mayor Ted Wilson acknowledges that Utah has played its cards well. "The community has used the games quite skillfully. There's been a lot of money that's come into Utah because of the games."

Still, he says, if the state wants to avoid a political crisis, Olympic organizers and Salt Lake City officials will have to mend the schism that has formed between the Olympic movement and the people. As an Olympic booster in the 1980s, Wilson saw the games as a way for Utah to help itself out of tough times. The state's taxpayers believed in that when they put $59 million into sports facilities.

But the chaos in the Salt Lake Valley and Olympic organizers' aloof, secretive manner show that the games have become less about Utah and more about two weeks in the spotlight and a few extra bucks for those who already have plenty.

With four years to go, Many of the major decisions have been made. But Utah can still insist that its tax dollars be spent to benefit the state in the long run, rather than simply to make the Olympics work.

Unless Utah as a whole takes the Olympics in hand - something it has not yet done - it will be left in the dust as the Olympic elite take their party to the next town. And unless the state decides what it wants the future to look like, others will make that decision, and the Wasatch Front will continue to stumble toward more smog, sprawl and scarred mountainsides. Says Wilson, "The cities and towns will have to step up to the plate."

Larry Warren, a Park City-based freelancer, contributed to this story. Assistant editor Greg Hanscom grew up in Park City, Utah.

Sidebar articles:

Colorado refused to play

The games should belong to the people

Can a ski town survive its moment of glory?

You can contact ...

* The Salt Lake Organizing Committee at 801/322-2002, or find it on the Web at www.slc2002.org;

* Stephen Pace with Utahns for Responsible Public Spending at 801/363-8190;

* Brad Barber with the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget at 801/538-1558;

* the Save Our Canyons' Web page at www.saveourcanyons.org.