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Southern hospitality tempers adversity

Atlanta Had Many Shining Moments, but Not Always Olympic Gold

Should Atlanta get the gold, silver, bronze - or no medal at all?

That is the question some are pondering a day after the Olympic flame has been extinguished, Centennial Park is empty, and visitors have left with their ubiquitous pins and T-shirts.

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Atlanta spent six years preparing to stage the world's largest peacetime event - pouring money into urban improvements, polishing its image, and putting its reputation on the line by promising the best Olympics ever. Now, as a quiet stillness settles over the city, the early judging is in - and it's predictably mixed.

By most accounts, the city did a good job of hosting the world's most celebrated sporting event. Moreover, as often happens during the Games, great sporting moments captured much of the world's attention once the competition got under way, diminishing the focus on day-to-day frustrations like traffic and heat.

Yet there will be negative legacies as well. Foremost, of course, is the pipebombing - as yet unsolved - that rocked Centennial Olympic Park. Yet the resolve of spectators and athletes alike to carry on after the tragedy may leave a more lasting impression than the violence itself.

The commercialism that turned downtown Atlanta into something of a flea market bothered many visitors - including the International Olympic Committee. It has decided it will never again approve a privately financed Games without at least a government guarantee of financing.

"I think we won a bronze medal for the Games, with a chance to move up to a silver," says Jeffrey Rosensweig, a professor of finance and international business at Emory University here. "We'll be a better city; we have a lot more profile internationally, as well as among national businesses. But we didn't bring home the gold. We just didn't make the money we expected to," he says, or transform the city into an appealing place for tourists the way Barcelona did.

Now city officials are hoping to build on the spiffed-up downtown and the larger profile the city has earned among the world's population as a place to live and do business.

Overall, economists here say the Games had between a $3 billion to $5 billion economic impact since 1990, and the Atlanta area has added 250,000 jobs over the past three years, many related to the Olympics. Now that the Games are over, economists say Atlanta will experience a slowdown as those workers scramble to find other positions. That will be temporary because the area has had a strong economy for some time, and although job creation won't be as dramatic, it will still exceed most of the country.

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"We were in good shape coming into the Games - Atlanta was a center of corporate locations," says Thomas Cunningham, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. "My inclination is to think we'll persist in that." The main legacy of the Olympics here and in other host cities, he adds, is the infrastructure improvements, which cities use to attract business.

"The Games have allowed us to address a lot of problems we knew we had to address but didn't have a deadline for," Mr. Cunningham says. Now when site selection groups come in, they'll see an expanded airport, improved highways, and a fixed-up downtown, all selling points, he adds.

Still, the economic impact hasn't been as magical as some had thought. Many vendors lost money, festivals saw scanty attendance, hotels didn't all fill up, and even popular restaurants were almost begging for patrons. Part of the reason was that thousands of visitors didn't venture outside the Olympic venues or downtown very much. But some say hype also was a factor.

"The information people were getting looked pretty rosy," Rosensweig says. "They had been told this was going to be a great thing and that streets would be lined with tourists with fistfuls of dollars. They were misinformed."

The same hype may have helped cloud Atlanta's tourism prospects, he says. "I think we'll get domestic tourism; the American people realize it's been a good Olympics," Rosensweig says. But "we pretended this was the next great international city ... which gave the international press a healthy dose of skepticism. That set us up much worse because then the press got into this mood of trying to find fault."

That attitude, combined with transportation and technical difficulties that affected the media, resulted in scores of critical stories about Atlanta.

Others also wonder how the world exposure the city has had will impact it in the future. "I've had more questions than ideas of what's likely to happen," says Andy Ambrose, curator of "The American South: Past, Present, and Future," an exhibit at the Atlanta History Center. "How will the city be encouraged by the Olympic experience to promote the international aspects of its image or has Atlanta received a black eye internationally in terms of being exposed as a pretender? If it does appear to be that way, Atlanta will probably respond as it often does with a really nice slick promotional campaign to try and address that."

Despite the media's negative coverage, most spectators interviewed had a good time. And at least a smattering of national and international visitors left better educated about the city and region. Attendance at the exhibit Mr. Ambrose curates was about three times higher than normal. "We had a good mix of countries and continents represented," he says. "That's something I'm really going to miss."


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