Denver’s Winter Olympics exploratory committee recommends Colorado bid for the games
Denver’s Olympic exploratory committee has recommended that the city and state pursue a Winter Olympics bid in 2030. The move surprised few, will inevitably rile some and still leaves unanswered questions about the logistics for such an enormous endeavor.
However, the committee did recommend that the bid be approved by a statewide referendum vote as soon as 2020 in a nod to skeptics, particularly in mountain communities like Summit, which feel that the final decision should not be left in the hands of unaccountable planners and politicians in Denver.
One thing that everyone can agree on: The process for a bid is a long way from over. According to the committee’s final report, the typical timeline sees a bid committee created in 2020 and an ongoing dialogue and candidate city selection process that goes until 2023, with the U.S. Olympic Committee selecting one American city to bid for the 2030 winter games.
Getting Denver’s bid to that stage will take a lot more conversation with potential host communities. Rob Cohen, chair of the exploratory committee, said that the committee kept Colorado’s needs in mind during the decision process.
“The three questions we sought to answer were, can we bring the games to Colorado, should we bring the games here and how can we privately finance it?,” said Cohen.
As far as “could” and “should,” the committee said the state and its mountain communities are more than able to handle the human and vehicular traffic for three weeks of games. Governor Hickenlooper himself gave his stamp of approval, saying the state has handled much bigger crowds than the Olympics without significant congestion or negative effects to the state and that the state would reap social, economic and environmental benefits from the games.
However, the answer to that last question of funding may save or sink any potential bid here in Colorado. Denver, after all, remains the only awarded host city to reject an Olympic games when voters refused public funding for the 1976 games. The IOC then had to scramble to find an alternate venue in Innsbruck, Austria, and has been cautious about awarding cities without solid public financial approval ever since.
According to Cohen and the committee’s final report, a potential 2030 games would avoid the typical concerns of cost overruns and financial risk to local communities with a unique financing and national hosting model.
“We came up with an innovative model that is financially prudent, has a sound budget and guarantees that would not put taxpayers at risk,” Cohen said.
The model would avoid public financing by having private sponsors put up the lion’s share of the cost for the games, though there is no explicit commitment for private sponsors or the money they will chip in. As far as overruns, Cohen said there’s a simple solution: do the most with what we already have.
“The big part of the cost comes when you do new construction,” Cohen said. “That’s why we recommend renting existing facilities, where construction overrun’s not a factor. When you’re renting, you know what costs are up front. That’s why our budget is higher than the one proposed from Salt Lake City. We wanted to make sure everything was in there.”
The report estimated the cost for the games to hit $1.86 billion, but that is based on the assumption that a “national hosting model” is used where venues are spread across the country instead of a single state. No new major construction would need to take place if Olympic-qualified venues outside Colorado, like in Utah, can be used for sports like Nordic skiing or the ski jump.
The report concedes that if the national model is not used, the costs would go up to build those venues here and more private sponsorships and diligent budgeting would be needed. The report does not go into detail for the costs of a non-national hosting route.
Christine O’Connor, who served on the Sharing the Gold advisory committee and has been a vocal opponent of bringing the games to Denver, is wary of that lack of certainty and says residents in the Front Range and High Country should be concerned too.
“These costs always spiral out of control,” O’Connor said. “Most Olympics have had significant cost overruns. It seems to me that around $2 billion for total cost is an extremely low number, lower than any other Olympics.”
O’Connor is also not convinced that the committee’s risk management plan to shield local communities, which would also rely heavily on private insurance policies, is adequate to guarantee that the people of mountain communities like Summit will not be left holding the bag.
But at the core of O’Connor’s concerns, and the concerns of other opponents to the games, is whether all the trouble and cost is really worth it for a three-week event that may, or may not, take place 12 years from now, especially considering Colorado’s existing needs for better transportation, infrastructure and affordable housing.
“I am a proponent of new leaders for our city who are determined to focus on the quality of life for existing residents rather than bringing an international event of this magnitude to our city and state,” O’Connor said. “At the end of the day it will cost billions for a three-week event that has been proven to be a drain on communities and resources at a time when our leaders are overlooking priorities.”
O’Connor did tacitly approve of the committee’s idea to put the bid to a statewide referendum, allowing voters all over the state to have their input. However, concern remains that host communities most affected by bringing the games here, like Summit County and its four major resorts, may get offset by parts of the state that won’t be nearly as affected, such as Pueblo.
Cohen said concern from locals about lack of representation in the decision is legitimate, but said the committee was not as concerned about disapproval as their own polling showed strong approval for the games in mountain communities.
Cohen also said the cost of having individual referendums in every town or county affected would be far too exorbitant compared to doing a single state-wide referendum. And even if the state approves it, the committee will not force towns or counties to host the games if locals disapprove.
“If voters of a town or county envisioned as a major venue voted against bringing the games here, we would go have a dialogue with that community to see if that is something they still want to pursue,” Cohen said. “But the beauty of Colorado is we have multiple venues of choice. If any one area didn’t want the games, those venues could be found elsewhere.”
Cohen did not immediately address the logistics of such a venue shift, or if it would be feasible late in the bidding process.
When reached for comment on Friday, County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said she is still keeping an open mind on the bid process as it still has several stages and years before it is finalized.
“I am not surprised by the bid approval, but it is only one step among many steps to actually follow through on a bid,” Stiegelmeier said. “The good news is that there is plenty of time, and people will have a chance to weigh in, and theoretically there are procedures to avoid local debt. We have hosted bigger events before in ski country, but not with the same requirements, so the plan may need to be altered to suit those.”
O’Connor also said she is willing to listen, but her stance on the state taking care of existing needs before inviting new, bigger problems is steadfast.
“Keep in mind I am not anti-growth or anti-progress but, like many other Coloradans, I ask whether perhaps we are going headlong into this without taking into account our limited water supplies, our congestion, our dismal air quality, and the fact that we need to first and foremost preserve and improve the quality of life for residents of the state. There are very real concerns that we cannot do this, and widespread sentiment remains as to whether we must keep saying ‘yes’ to every mega-project that someone thinks of.”
With an above-average snowpack following a snowy winter, local firefighters and wildlife experts are expecting a mild fire season this year, especially at higher elevations.