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Panel backs Denver bid for Winter Olympics

Author: Mark Harden - June 1, 2018 - Updated: June 1, 2018

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In this Feb. 2, 2015, file photo, fireworks explode during the opening ceremony for the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, in Vail, Colo. Vail Resorts, which is the largest resort operator in North America, is buying the continent's biggest ski area, Canada's Whistler, the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Vail Resorts Inc. announced Monday, Aug. 8, 2016, that it was purchasing Whistler Blackcomb Holdings Inc., the Canadian ski resort company, for $1.06 billion, adding to its aggressive expansion. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)
In this Feb. 2, 2015, file photo, fireworks explode during the opening ceremony for the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, in Vail — one of many possible venues for a Denver Winter Olympics. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

Denver should make a bid for a future Winter Olympics and Paralympic games — but only if Colorado voters approve.

That’s the recommendation delivered Friday to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper by an exploratory committee of civic, community and business leaders.

> Download the full report here.

It’s a new sign of interest in Denver hosting a future winter games, decades after Colorado won and then rejected the event.

Hancock formed the committee — led by Rob Cohen, Denver-based chairman and CEO of The IMA Financial Group — last December in concert with Hickenlooper to explore whether an Olympics bid would make sense for the city and the state.

The exploratory panel “recommends that Denver and Colorado pursue hosting a future Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games if the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) calls for U.S. bid cities,” according to Friday’s announcement.

The committee said it “recommends that any future bid effort only go forward if endorsed by a statewide vote of Coloradans in 2020 or beyond.”

It said the Winter Olympics “would be a statewide event, with major competition venues outside of Denver and athletes and spectators from all over the state participating; therefore, a statewide referendum would empower the voters of Colorado to decide.”

It said that, based on “more than 30,000 interactions with Coloradans across the state,” the panel concluded that “Denver and Colorado’s mountain communities are more than capable of hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, and that there is statewide support for hosting the Games.”

In a statement, Cohen said the committee “developed a new financial model that would enable a future organizing committee to host the Games without requiring direct funding from any public entity or the taxpayers, nor would it rely upon government guarantees.”

The panel’s report estimated it would cost from $1.8 billion to $2.1 billion to stage the games in Colorado if existing facilities were used to the extent possible.

Private financing of the Olympics would come from corporate backing and sponsorships, ticket revenue, licensing and merchandising, and an expected International Olympic Committee (IOC) contribution of more than half a billion dollars, the committee’s report says.

Not everyone in Denver is on board with hosting the Olympics. An opposition group called NOlympics, led by real estate developer Kyle Zeppelin and others, argues that taxpayers could wind up paying for cost overruns if a private-financing plan falls short.

It’s up to the USOC to decide whether to submit a bid from a U.S. city to host a future winter games to the IOC, which would then choose a site from among bids submitted by various nations.

It’s expected the USOC would submit only one U.S. city as a possible site, or none at all.

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said in December that Denver as well as Salt Lake City and Reno, Nevada, are among the cities that might be considered for an upcoming Olympic bid, possibly as early as the 2030 games.

Salt Lake hosted the Winter Olympics in 2002, the last U.S. city to do so.

The Olympic Winter Games are held every four years on a schedule alternating with the summer games. The next two winter games will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018 and Beijing in 2022.

The IOC plans to select the 2026 host city in September 2019; a U.S. city is not in the running.

It’s expected that the bidding process for the 2030 games will begin in 2021, with a host city announced two years after that.

The call for a statewide vote before making a bid is significant because it was a statewide vote after submitting a bid half a century ago that led to Denver being the only place in the world to have rejected hosting an Olympiad after winning it.

Stocking hats used in Colorado’s effort to secure an Olympic bid in 1976 are part of the memorabilia collection of the Denver Public Library in Denver. Decades after becoming the first city to walk away from an Olympic bid, Denver is considering whether to try to again to host the Winter Games. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Denver learned in May 1970 that it would be the host city for the 1976 games. But as it turned out, the people of Colorado weren’t overly impressed by the honor.

At a time when anti-growth, pro-environment feeling ran high in Colorado, Dick Lamm — then a Democratic state legislator — and others began to raise their voices in opposition to hosting the Olympics.

They cited the cost and potential environmental impact on the state and warned the games might draw hordes of new residents. And, in an era when Winter Olympic venues tended to be close together, they noted that the Denver Olympics sites would be as much as 170 miles apart.

In November 1972, Colorado voters soundly defeated a statewide $5 million bond measure to finance the Olympics. Some Olympics supporters blamed confusing ballot language; opponents said it was clear the games would have cost taxpayers several times more than $5 million.

In any event, Denver had little choice but to relinquish the 1976 Olympics, which were instead held in Innsbruck, Austria.

Lamm’s leadership on the issue helped him win the first of three terms as governor in 1974. And, despite the Olympic rejection, growth came to Colorado anyway.

Since those days, feelings about hosting the games appear to have mellowed; a 2012 survey found that 74 percent of Colorado voters approved of an Olympics bid. And local officials have talked often in recent years about the benefits of staging the games.

In Friday’s announcement, the exploratory committee said it “recognizes the concerns raised in Colorado communities regarding challenges faced in the areas of affordable housing, transportation, mobility and sustainability. While an Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games cannot solve such shared priorities for the city and state, the Games could be a catalyst to speed up solutions that may be planned or under consideration. For instance, previous North American host cities, such as Salt Lake City and Vancouver, benefitted from improvements to their roads to and from their mountain communities.”

Hancock issued this statement about the panel’s recommendations:

By combining the International Olympic Committee’s new approach to hosting the Games with the recommendations to relieve the financial burden on taxpayers and place the ultimate decision-making with Colorado residents, I feel we have the right approach to host the Games the Colorado way. I am grateful for the Exploratory Committee’s guidance for moving forward as a community. Through their engagement with residents, they not only determined what the support was for hosting a future Winter Games, but also how these events could serve as a catalyst to help solve challenging issues statewide, including growing traffic congestion and the housing crisis.

And Hickenlooper had this to say:

A statewide referendum gives Coloradans the chance to weigh in on the potential to host a Winter Games. We handle crowds much greater than the typical Winter Games attendance without significant congestion or other impacts to the state. This report shows how a Winter Games could provide long term economic, social and environmental benefits.

 

Mark Harden

Mark Harden

Mark Harden is managing editor of Colorado Politics. He previously was news director at the Denver Business Journal; city editor, online news editor, state editor, national editor and popular music critic at The Denver Post; and an editor and reporter at newspapers in the Seattle area and San Francisco.