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Originally published February 19, 2011 at 8:00 PM | Page modified February 19, 2011 at 8:21 PM

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Restless Native

Vancouver Olympics leave a legacy of gain and financial pain

Two venues — The Village at False Creek and the bustling Richmond Olympic Oval — from last year's Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., stand as monuments to the pain and gain that can come from pouring a decade's worth of civic energy — and an ungodly amount of money — into luring and hosting the world's largest sporting event.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Vancouver Olympics

Estimated Games operating budget, 2002 "bid book": $1.35 billion.

Actual Games operating budget: $1.9 billion ($187 million from B.C. and federal governments; remainder from Olympic sponsorships, ticket sales, TV revenues, etc.)

Games construction budget: $603 million (half federal, half provincial money)

Security and Olympic-related infrastructure projects: Approximately $5 billion, federal and provincial money

Estimated economic impact: 45,000 jobs, $2.5 billion in gross domestic product, $500 million in increased tourism spending nationwide.*

Source: *PricewaterhouseCoopers studies commissioned by B.C. and Canadian governments, including all economic benefit since awarding of the Games bid in 2003.

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VANCOUVER, B.C. — One is a shiny new inner-city ghost town, its future an open question. The other is a beehive of renewed energy, already providing answers.

The Village at False Creek and the bustling Richmond Olympic Oval are orphans of a common mother: the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, which drew the eyes of the world toward British Columbia one year ago.

The two Olympic venues stand as monuments to both the pain and gain that can come from pouring a decade's worth of civic energy — and an ungodly amount of money — into luring and hosting the world's largest sporting event.

The Village, which housed the world's athletes a year ago, is deeply underwater financially, with the public left holding the bag. The Oval, conversely, is sparking a transformation of one of the city's prominent suburbs. That dichotomy is not unusual; most Olympic host cities, looking back years later on their global coming-out-parties, see a mixed bag of leftovers. The one thing they all have in common: The Games, by necessity, hog a region's civic agenda for a decade or more.

A year after the flame was extinguished on Vancouver's waterfront, does it all seem worth it?

"I think so," says Therese Koster, 41, a resident of Vancouver's Eastside, walking with children along the False Creek waterfront. "It brought more attention to the city. It's good for people to see what a wonderful place this is. You come to Vancouver, you fall in love with it, you want to live here."

But answers to the same question vary based not only on whom you ask in the Vancouver metro area, but where. Because the former Athlete's Village and the Richmond Oval, close enough to be viewed on opposite sides of the same plane departing the airport, are worlds apart in the way they reflect light from Vancouver's Games.

Vacant Olympic Village

All the place really needs to be the perfect community is some people.

Everything else is in place at the former Olympic Athlete's Village, known post-Games as Millennium Water, and just recently relabeled "The Village on False Creek" for yet another big sales push to lure more residents to the largely vacant waterfront condo village.

The uber-modern development on Southeast False Creek, a short hop by trail or water taxi from downtown, is the sort of inner-city community one might build if money were no object. Years ago, in the planning phase, it wasn't.

The result is spectacular. A small sea of 20 buildings rises gracefully from the rear of this urban village, leaving vast stretches of open space to draw residents into parklands along the waterway. Views of downtown, backed by the city's trademark snow-covered peaks, are everywhere.

The entire place is urban-green chic, right down to the solar-compacting trash cans and steel manhole covers, with their Northwest native art designs rusting on cue.

Some locals call it "sterile," or pan it as some misguided urban planner's haughty stab at "social engineering." But city officials still consider the pricey development, lauded as the "greenest" construction project of its kind ever built, a stunning achievement. Yet strolling through it today, the ubiquitous "You Could Live Here!" sales-pitch signs outnumber human beings by about 50-to-1.

In the global real-estate slump, fewer than 300 of the village's 737 condos, many of them considered "luxury" units even by Vancouver standards, have sold. The $1 billion development went into receivership in November. And thanks to its Olympic ties, Vancouver taxpayers are on the hook.

When Vancouver won the Olympic bid in 2003, city officials saw an opportunity to speed up a long-sought remake of the Southeast False Creek area, much in the way they had used Expo '86 to remake waterfront tracts on the north shore of False Creek.

The thinking: All of it would be sold or rented post-Games, some as affordable housing, subsidized indirectly by the high-priced sales of the rest. In one of the world's hottest real-estate markets, it seemed a no-brainer.

In hindsight, it was. When the original builder, Millennium Development, went upside down with the Games looming, the city was forced to make good on guarantees to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and pick up the tab to finish construction.

Vancouver wound up fronting about three-quarters of the $1 billion cost. The city won't get its money back until the condos sell. And it will never recover all of its stake if units sell, as they are being listed now, for less than their predicted market value.

The city's Vision Vancouver leaders, swept into power last year partly because of rancor over Village financing, are in damage-control mode, working to essentially cut their losses. The city is renting out or sitting on many of the $1 million-plus units in hopes the market will recover. But the bulk of the remaining units were reoffered last week at prices slashed, on average, by about a third.

"What I hope is we break even on the village over time," Mayor Gregor Robertson told The Vancouver Sun last week.

"It is going to take years. There is no happy, surprise twist right now."

Complicated financial impact

To some Vancouverites, that fact alone makes the Games an official bust. In hindsight, the decision to build a four-star athlete's village looks especially foolish; other host cities built the same venue for a fraction of the cost by designating it for a more humble, and predictable, post-Games use. (The village for the 1980 Lake Placid Games now serves as a prison.)

But the broader financial legacy is more complicated.

In the "official" books, the Games broke even on a $1.9 billion operating budget (thanks to a last-minute boost from the IOC.) But local and federal governments spent roughly $5 billion on security and a host of major infrastructure projects hastened by the Games. Those include broadening the Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler, a sprawling waterfront convention-center annex, and the Canada Line transit extension from downtown to Richmond.

To their credit, Vancouver's organizers, mindful of other host cities stuck with white-elephant venues, wisely planned most Olympic venues for post-Games use from the very start.

Because of the Games, Vancouver can boast of a remodeled hockey facility at the University of British Columbia, a new community aquatic center near Queen Elizabeth Park (a converted curling venue), and a remodeled Pacific Coliseum — all built mostly with public money.

A boon for Richmond

The star "legacy" venue, however, is the Richmond Olympic Oval, the giant longtrack speedskating cocoon across the Fraser River from Vancouver International Airport. The massive building has morphed into what might qualify as the world's most spectacular public recreation center.

With its long-track speedskating ice removed, the building, owned and controlled by the city of Richmond, is a 355,000-square-foot open space hosting a mind-boggling cornucopia of sport facilities: two Olympic-size ice rinks; eight full-size basketball/volleyball courts; a gymnastics/tumbling area; multiple rubber-floored sport courts; a five-lane, 200-meter running track and 110-meter sprint lane; and spaces for table tennis, badminton, rowing, martial arts, aerobic classes and other programs.

All of this can be in use at the same time, under one massive, sound-absorbing Douglas fir (pine-beetle killed, reportedly) roof, with a glass wall offering sweeping views of the Fraser River and snowcapped mountains.

The Oval, unlike many a specialized Olympic venue to come before it, is operating in the black. The $178 million facility is paid for, through a combination of Vancouver Organizing Committee construction funds, casino revenues, city-owned land sales and other non-taxpayer means. A long-term goal of selling 3,000 memberships at $58 a month already has been met.

A key to its success was designing the building with a focus on its long-term use, not the relative time-blip of the Olympics, says Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie.

The city decided what sort of building it wanted to serve the public for the next 60 to 80 years, he said. "Once we figured that out, we fit the Olympics within that."

The Oval, combined with the new Canada Line rail link to downtown, is turning Richmond from a suburb into a destination in its own right.

Developers have taken note. The Oval is about to become the centerpiece of "River Green," a string of riverfront residential/commercial buildings. City officials say the project will be a $2 billion civic transformation that might never have occurred without the Olympics.

By getting most of its money upfront, Richmond today stands as a rarity in the Olympic world: a community that used the Games more effectively than the Games used it.

A boost beyond dollars

If studies by Games boosters are to be believed, the Olympics injected hundreds of millions of dollars into B.C.'s economy and boosted tourism nationwide.

But to many British Columbians, the true legacy of these Olympics lies not in the numbers but in something more valuable — and less expected.

"The biggest thing I noticed during the Olympics was that the whole country came together," says local resident John Fraser, as he watches his 3-year-old twin sons shuffle around on the ice in Team Canada garb during a kids' skating clinic at the Oval.

Canada is a proud country, but in recent history hadn't seen many occasions to wear the maple leaf on its sleeve. Its contributions on the world stage have been plentiful, just not flashy. (Try to imagine a few hundred thousand people hitting the streets, Molsons in hand, to celebrate the successful deployment of the Canada Arm on a U.S. shuttle mission.)

But the Vancouver Games will always be remembered as the Olympics where Canada finally won its first gold medal on home soil, ending an 0-forever jinx. And for a record 13 more golds that followed, capped by Sidney Crosby's epic overtime goal that put the U.S. to the sword in the gold-medal hockey game, launching a highly un-Canadian orgy of patriotic love that has calmed, but not died.

The realization that it's OK to be overtly proud changed the country, just a little, but perhaps forever, Fraser believes. And you can't put a price tag — be it red, or black — on that.

"The physical facilities are a nice legacy," he says. "But the biggest victory was all the pride and unity that came with it."

Restless Native columnist Ron Judd has covered seven Olympics for The Seattle Times, including the 2010 Vancouver Games. 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

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