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Park City an eye-opener for council

One of the global assumptions about the Olympics is that prices in the host city generally rocket skywards and that only the very affluent will be able to afford any kind of accommodation.

One of the global assumptions about the Olympics is that prices in the host city generally rocket skywards and that only the very affluent will be able to afford any kind of accommodation.

That, said Councillor Kristi Wells, is a common misconception and it is one that tends to create the exact opposite effect.

Wells was part of a Whistler team that visited Park City, Utah for three days in October. It is one of the venue towns for the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games and Whistler feels lessons can be learned from Park City’s experiences.

The Whistler team included Wells; fellow councillors Nick Davies and Dave Kirk; municipal administrator, Jim Godfrey; acting director of public works, Brian Barnett; parks planning manager, Jan Jansen; planning director, Mike Purcell and Mayor Hugh O’Reilly.

Wells, also a member of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, met with the director of the Park City chamber of commerce. She said one of the things the Park City chamber has learned from other host cities is that people think things are going to go nuts.

"People have all these big assumptions around business going crazy and prices out of reach and all the rest but actually the opposite is quite true. They have actually been given stats where the year before the Olympics, business is down, the year of the Olympics business is down and the year after the Olympics it is also down from what it traditionally would be."

A similar scenario would be the hyped anticipation around this last Millennium period that had people thinking accommodation would be scarce and that they would be gouged by greedy merchants. The result was folks stayed home in greater numbers than usual and booking rates dropped.

"These assumptions are so prevalent world-wide that business actually goes down. This is the standard they have found in many, many places," said Wells of the Park City Olympic team. "And they have prepared an Olympic marketing plan in response."

For example, those who go skiing in Park City this winter are being guaranteed the same rate and a booking for the Olympic year.

Wells said she also looked at issues around lease and vacancy rates, which are remaining stable.

The Whistler team met with officials from the Park City and Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) and toured venues, including Solider Hollow – where the Nordic events will take place – and the Utah Olympic State Park built especially for the ski jump, bobsled and luge events.

"We have been encouraged, right from the beginning, to visit other host cities," said Wells. "And this trip has been incredibly valuable."

Wells said it served to highlight issues one generally doesn’t think of – like how to empty 1,000 port-a-potties on a main road when there are three world class events taking place.

"For me it gave the Olympics a depth. It is such a huge learning curve."

There are some similarities between Park City and Whistler.

The core population of the resort town is comparable, at around 10,000, except Park City has outlying areas that bring the population count up about 1,500. Park City, like Whistler, will also host the snow events.

The key difference, however, is that Park City is only a venue city for the Games while Salt Lake City, about a 20-minute drive away, is the host.

Whistler, on the other hand, is bidding jointly with Vancouver, which gives a town more say.

"It’s a very positive thing," noted Wells. "As a venue city Park City is basically rented out to host some events. There will be some good marketing profile from that but nothing like as if their name was down as a host. It will be the Salt Lake Olympics right down to the logos, namesake, marketing and advertising," said Wells.

"From my perspective, being a joint bid city allows us to really put down some of our guiding principles and terms and conditions in the form of a contract with the organizing committee. Park City doesn’t really have that ability."

One of the major challenges facing Park City is transportation. Wells said the town has built a transportation centre and come up with a plan that uses a combination of car and bus transport.

Whistler too is looking at a transportation hub down the road. Park City is also benefiting from major highway improvements and new airport links.

Policing and security is another key issue.

"We learned a lot about policing and some of the funding issues around that," said Wells. "There are different levels of contracts between the organizing committee and the city that cover everything from police services to garbage collection and which part of those costs are absorbed by the Olympics."

Wells said security is a major consideration for every Olympics. Each venue, for example, has to have a separate access for athletes and their families. "There are some crystal clear guidelines," she said. "Yet you still have to try and make things seem open and friendly."

The Whistler team spent time perusing security routing and master plans. "We talked about everything from environmental standards, parking needs, media needs, financial implications and new infrastructure to housing and affordability, and we asked questions about strain on city staff."

Wells said Park City, for example, has not found a need to hire more personnel.

"It was really good to ask those kinds of questions. We asked if we should even get involved. They said they would do it all again, in a heart beat."

Purcell is compiling the notes gathered from the trip and will be making a presentation to council in the near future.

"We have to remember this is just for two weeks," noted Wells.

"One of the things I took out of it is, this is the business we are in – we are in the event-resort business and we are very fortunate to have a thriving community that goes along with that. But it is our business and we all, in one way or another, count on it for our survival and for the lifestyle we have chosen. By getting the Olympics, it is like the Nobel prize – you have reached the upper echelon of the resort-event business," said Wells.

"This is also a machine. There are people who do all the marketing and the staging and the venues. They know what they are doing and it is up to us as a community, not to re-invent the actual marketing and staging of the Olympics, but figure out how to integrate it all into what we have and to make it unique and different from any other one."