With the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler only a year away, enthusiasm is tempered with worry as costs mount.
VANCOUVER, B.C. —
In the summer of 2003, a volunteer for Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympic bid stood nearly in tears describing how it felt to learn that the Olympic flame would be lit in British Columbia in February 2010.
“It was close, but we’ll take it,” the woman said of a 56-53 vote by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which chose Vancouver and Whistler. “We’re not giving it back!”
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Six years later, with a global recession in full sway and Olympic construction and security costs mounting, a growing number of her fellow citizens might jump at that opportunity.
It’s too late to give the Olympics back. With the one-year-out date looming Thursday, contracts are signed, guarantees have been made and the world’s best bobsledders are already screaming down a course on Blackcomb Mountain at 90 mph. Vancouver’s Olympic moment is literally set in concrete.
But it’s expensive mortar. The pride-filled celebration of five years ago seems a quaint, perhaps naive memory in a city now questioning the cost of welcoming the world to Canada’s hippest, most diverse city.
A group of bicycle messengers hanging out downtown, near the official Games countdown clock, joked this week that once it strikes zero, the clock will start counting up — “to start totaling up the deficit.”
Not everyone in Vancouver shares the cynicism. Two-thirds of city residents voted thumbs-up on an Olympic plebiscite five years ago. And much of that fan base remains rabid, as evidenced by historic demand for tickets and a huge surplus of Games volunteers.
A lot has gone right with Vancouver’s Olympic experience, some of it to an unprecedented degree: Vancouver is the first Olympic host to complete all its competition venues two years before the Games. Each will have conducted an Olympic test event by spring.
Insiders, such as former Mayor Sam Sullivan, note that the Olympics already have changed Vancouver for the better.
“The city is hoppin’,” Sullivan says. “There are so many jobs created, and money coming in from all around the world. I can’t see how that’s a negative thing.”
But critics say the Games they voted for are not the Games they’re getting. And events this winter sent a shudder through an Olympic support base that once seemed impenetrable.
First, fans from across Canada swamped a lottery for the Games’ 1.6 million tickets, leaving many local fans empty-handed and others paying sky-high prices from scalpers.
Then last month, the city’s incoming mayor, Gregor Robertson, trumpeted to the world that the city of Vancouver was on the hook for up to $1 billion (Canadian) in construction and finance costs for the Olympic Village, a major condominium development on the city’s Southeast False Creek waterfront.
The Village is the last uncompleted piece of the Olympics puzzle. Condos in the development, which will house about 2,800 athletes, will be sold after the Games, supposedly recouping construction costs. The city agreed, quietly, two years ago, to finish the project if its finances ever fell through — a contingency that must have seemed inconceivable at the time.
But the real-estate crash, coupled with the financial tanking of the project’s primary lender, the U.S. hedge fund Fortress Investment Group, left the city holding the bag. Vancouver had to amend its city charter to borrow, without a public vote, $500 million to complete the project — beyond the $100 million already loaned to the developer last fall.
The city insists the money all will be paid back as the condos sell. (The only way taxpayers will be stuck with the full construction tab is if none ever sells.) But the natives, seeing the city’s bond rating fall, are restless.
The sagging economy, meanwhile, created a small gap in the Games’ $1.8 billion operating budget, leading to robbing some contingency funds and trimming niceties. And Canadians continue to wait for the final shoe to drop — an expected admission by the federal government that the original, $175 million security budget is more likely to cost about $1 billion.
Add it all up, and what do you get?
“I think there’s buyer’s remorse,” says Maurice Cardinal, a self-described fan of the Olympic Games, but a critic of the way Olympics, from the IOC to the local organizing committees, tend to shake down taxpayers.
Cardinal, who operates Olyblog.com, a sort of skeptics’ Web site, says the drumbeat of recent bad economic news has caused Olympic angst to infect the mainstream public.
“People are starting to panic a little bit,” he says.
Cardinal and others now worry that the Games, while being a great showcase for B.C. and Vancouver, will leave a legacy of staggering debt.
After the Athletes Village controversy erupted in local papers, reporters began adding up the numbers.
Beyond the official $1.8 billion budget, and $600 million for Olympic-venue construction, lurks a list of “off-the-books” public projects. The rough estimates: $600 million to upgrade the Sea to Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler; nearly $1 billion for an expanded waterfront-convention center to accommodate Games media; $1.5 billion or more for a new elevated-rail line from downtown Vancouver south to Richmond; and the feared $1 billion security budget.
All told, it’s easy to imagine a price tag of $6 billion.
Sponsorships, TV contracts and ticket sales are supposed to cover the official budget’s outlays. But provincial and federal taxpayers are responsible for the rest.
Faced with those figures, locals accused Games’ organizers of bait-and-switch tactics and politicians of duplicity.
Part of this angst is rooted in Canada’s first — and worst — brush with the Olympics: The Montreal Summer Games of 1976, which left that city with a $1.6 billion debt that took 30 years to repay. The Calgary Winter Games of 1988 were more financially successful, but the Montreal specter lingers.
Most of Vancouver’s fear is hysteria whipped up by political opportunists, says Sullivan. The man who was in office when Vancouver signed, behind closed doors, the completion guarantee for the Olympic Village has spoken little publicly about the affair.
But he told The Seattle Times that he wouldn’t hesitate to do it the same way all over again. He believes the Games will be seen as the catalyst that helped the city realize its full potential as an environmentally responsible, people-friendly urban oasis.
Much of the total price tag is for infrastructure the region would have built without the Olympics, he says, citing the new rail line.
Similarly, the False Creek development housing the Olympic Village had long been a dream of city planners. Described as a model of high-density, “sustainable” development, it is the missing link in the city’s almost 14-mile, pedestrian-and-bike friendly sea wall.
Sullivan has no doubt the False Creek development, which ultimately will be home to 16,000 people, will recoup all its costs.
And he stands by his pledge that there will be “no impact on taxes.”
“Give it a few years,” he says. “We’ll see: Was there any penny added to the tax burden of citizens? I am saying no.”
Sullivan and other supporters point with pride to the finished competition venues, most of which were created by a $580 million building spree financed by the federal and provincial governments. Those facilities, from the cross-country trails tucked into an old-growth forest west of Whistler to the massive Richmond Oval speedskating venue along the Fraser River, have drawn almost universal praise from athletes and officials.
The world clearly is excited to descend upon Vancouver, the largest, most sophisticated metro area ever to host a Winter Olympics, and Whistler, its worldly alpine outpost.
Can the people of B.C. muster the enthusiasm to match? It depends on whom you ask. Many Vancouverites are quick to grumble about the cost. But they’re just as quick to praise part of what it buys, such as improvements to the former “Highway of Death” to Whistler.
Most people find themselves somewhere in the middle.
“This will be a huge benefit,” says Dr. Frank Prat, a Vancouver physician, as he finishes a day of cross-country skiing with his wife at Whistler Olympic Park, which opened for public use last year.
But, he adds, “I’m afraid we’re going to be paying additional taxes for 20 years.”
He calls the guarantees that most or all costs will be recouped “wishful thinking.”
“There are moments in a city’s history that change it forever,” the former mayor says, citing Expo ’86, the World’s Fair. “People griped about the costs of that, too. But you don’t hear anyone bad-mouthing it today.”
Once the Games of 2010 begin, any lingering public angst will melt away, he believes.
“We’re all going to be very proud,” Sullivan says. “Now is the time for the city to rally around.”
A lot of its residents say that, in the end, they probably will do so. But with the world economy in tatters around them, they’re reserving the right to feel less squishy-good about it.
“It may cost a small fortune,” Prat says, shrugging and putting his skis onto a car rack near Whistler. “But, hey, what the hell.”
Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at email@example.com