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Atlanta's Olympic legacy

When Atlanta was awarded the Olympics 22 years ago, it was forever changed. For better or worse is still being debated.

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Centennial Park's iconic fountain bears the five signature Olympic rings - MAX BLAU
  • Max Blau
  • Centennial Park's iconic fountain bears the five signature Olympic rings

Before 1990, Atlanta didn't have its current international recognition largely due to its inherent lack of tourist destinations. ACOG representatives often recounted a story from their early Olympic travels where people would refer to Atlanta as "the city on the East Coast with slot machines," incorrectly identifying Atlantic City.

Following the Olympics, people unquestionably remembered Atlanta as an estimated three billion people saw the city in action that summer. This massive exposure enabled Atlanta to sustain its growth as a tourist destination. Harvey Newman, a recently retired Georgia State professor and author of Southern Hospitality: Tourism and the Growth of Atlanta, observed this firsthand well after the Olympics ended that year.

"We had a hotel-building frenzy in those five, six years prior to the games," Newman says. "I thought it had to let up, we can't sustain that kind of growth, [but we] kept building and it was amazing."

"When you pump five, six billion dollars into a metropolitan area in a concentrated period of six years, you're going to have an enormous impact," he says. "In fact, that was the case. We led the nation in job creation, new jobs created, from '91 through the Olympic games."

Perhaps the most impressive part (or problematic, according to some critics) of the Olympic preparation was the fact that ACOG had no public funding to back its efforts. The committee raised and spent approximately $1.7 billion, leaving Atlanta with numerous legacy structures including Turner Field and Centennial Olympic Park without costing taxpayers a dime.

The Olympics bequeathed two of Atlanta's most treasured and iconic landmarks. That never happens, as nearly every other Olympic host uses the games as an excuse to fund major public works projects in order to present their city and nation in the best possible light. Atlanta simply didn't have that luxury.

"We spent $1.7 billion," Frazier recalls. "They're spending $17 billion in London. That's 10 times what we spent, and yet the leverage that gave to the Atlanta economy I think was incredible. I don't think London is going to get anything like that kind of return."

ACOG could spend within its means because of its remarkable use of Atlanta's pre-existing infrastructure. Unlike many other games, which have invested in public works and grandiose-but-underutilized venues, Frazier tapped into the city's established resources as the foundation for the Atlanta games.

"The assets Atlanta had were rapid transit and the ability to put venues in a compact location, generally right downtown in what we called the Olympic ring," Frazier says. Some of those sites included the Georgia Dome, Georgia World Congress Center, Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, and the Omni Coliseum — which would be replaced by Philips Arena in 1999.

Many major universities that hosted sporting events received funding for structural improvements. Collegiate athletic facilities soon converted into world-class venues: Clark Atlanta University's Herndon Stadium hosted field hockey; Morehouse's Forbes Arena accommodated preliminary basketball rounds; and Georgia State used its athletic facilities for badminton. Georgia Tech constructed a state-of-the-art natatorium for the games' aquatic events, while a decent chunk of the campus transformed into the Olympic Village.

"We spent a lot of money at Georgia Tech," Frazier says. "We put the big dorms on the side of the interstate as you can see. We also invested money in almost every dormitory and fraternity house on the campus."

For Georgia State, the Olympics had farther-reaching effects, changing the institution from a commuter school into a residential college. "The opportunity to take over the dormitories, the Olympic Village, as our first dormitories, was a major policy shift for this institution," Newman says. "All of those changes would not have happened apart from the Olympic preparation."

Some Olympic venues struggled to find their repurposed use. Stone Mountain Tennis Park and Wolf Creek Shooting Complex have both faced uphill battles in the 16 years since the games took place. Stone Mountain Tennis Park shut down in 2007, while Wolf Creek Shooting Complex has experienced financial difficulties. Stone Mountain Park's temporary structures for archery and indoor cycling are long gone and have been replaced by a songbird habitat.

Local communty and housing

ACOG's incorporation of the metro area into the Olympics remains one of its great achievements. That incorporation also lent itself to a coincidental shift in public-housing policy on a national level, which allowed for significant progress and redevelopment to progress at a rapid pace. Techwood Homes — the United States' oldest public housing project — could finally be demolished, while the city de-emphasized low-income public housing in favor of deconcentrated, mixed-income communities.

"That had an enormous impact on Atlanta, Ga. — politically, demographically, in every way that I could think of," Newman explains. "Prior to that, we had one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the country. ... The results have been an impetus for changes in housing policy in many of the city's low-income neighborhoods and also a jump-start to downtown housing."

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