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The Economic Legacy Of Atlanta's Olympic Games

Children play in the fountain in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in July 2006, 10 years after the city hosted the Olympic Games.
John Bazemore
Children play in the fountain in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in July 2006, 10 years after the city hosted the Olympic Games.

Bringing the 1996 Summer Olympic Games to Atlanta was a long shot. Athens, Greece, was the sentimental favorite to host the centennial games, and tension was palpable as IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch made the announcement back on Sept. 18, 1990.

"The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the city of ... Atlanta," Samaranch revealed.

That announcement launched more than $1 billion of construction projects, from Olympic venues to housing for the athletes. Now, on the 15th anniversary of the games, Atlanta sees both gains and losses from the international event.

One of the most prominent legacies of the games is Centennial Olympic Park in the heart of Atlanta. The 21-acre plaza glistens in what was an area of urban decay, and children run and linger in the fountain.

Harvey Newman, a professor of public policy at Georgia State University, says the park brought economic development downtown.

"The area surrounding the park has added major hotels, condominiums, new office structures and, of course, people continue to flock to enjoy the Olympic rings fountain," Newman says.

The park is part of the Olympics' $5 billion economic impact on the city. The games also planted the seeds for new tourist attractions, including the Georgia Aquarium.

A couple of miles north is what once was the Olympic Village, where 10,000 athletes ate and slept. The buildings have been turned into dorms for two universities. Newman says the games brought housing and infrastructure projects that would not have happened as quickly — or perhaps at all.

"It certainly put Atlanta on the map as a place to be taken seriously among cities throughout the world," he says.

Olympic Village housing for athletes taking part in the 1996 Centennial Olympics is located on the campus of the  Georgia Institute of Technology.
/ AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Olympic Village housing for athletes taking part in the 1996 Centennial Olympics is located on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Economic Transformation

The Olympics is at least partly responsible for a huge population increase, from 3.5 million people in 1996 to nearly 5.5 million in the metro area today. But that spectacular growth also has had a downside: increased traffic and a declining housing market.

Property values are way down, and hundreds of condos, apartments and lofts that were built are for sale or vacant. But experts say that's because of the larger recession, not a post-Olympic crash.

"People had very unrealistic expectations of what the Olympics could do," says Ken Bernhardt, a marketing professor at Georgia State University. He says it was not practical to count on a long-term economic boost.

"The impact was big," Bernhardt says. "It was short term with some infrastructure improvements and cleaning up downtown. What reason would anybody have to expect that that expenditure would have a big impact 15 years later?"

Atlanta's unemployment rate is 10.5 percent — much higher than the national average, and a recent study says the region has lost more than 200,000 jobs since 2007. So while an economic transformation is evident in parts of the city, many poor communities were overlooked, says Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University.

"We still have tremendous unemployment, and so it's one of the reasons why people have used the phrase that Atlanta is a paradox," Owens says.

'You Can Still See ... A Lot Of Decline'

Just a few blocks from Olympic stadium is Atlanta's Pittsburgh neighborhood. As we drive just off McDaniel Street, LaShawn Hoffman with the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association says this area was left out of the Olympic prosperity.

"We still have overgrown kudzu. We have some homes that are still vacant and abandoned," Hoffman says. "You can see some new infill construction that has happened, but you can still see that there is a lot of decline."

Out of about 12,000 structures in the neighborhood, Hoffman says half are vacant.

"Again, we were right off the cusp and outside of the view of where the majority of the traffic, the people would be. And so, where we really wanted our neighborhood to be able to benefit from the investment that was being made, the Pittsburgh neighborhood didn't prosper," Hoffman says.

That's the paradox that Michael Leo Owens at Emory University continues to witness.

"We could argue that the place of Atlanta has benefited in all sorts of ways, but we also, I think, would be hard-pressed to say that all the people in that place have actually benefited from the legacy of the Olympic Games," Owens says.

Some economic forecasts show that it will take a couple of years for Atlanta to rebound from the overbuilding it saw before and after the Olympics — and the massive bank failures that followed. The city is now focusing on transportation and redevelopment, intended to help some of the communities that missed out on the Olympic opportunity.

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Whether covering the manhunt and eventual capture of Eric Robert Rudolph in the mountains of North Carolina, the remnants of the Oklahoma City federal building with its twisted metal frame and shattered glass, flood-ravaged Midwestern communities, or the terrorist bombings across the country, including the blast that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, correspondent Kathy Lohr has been at the heart of stories all across the nation.