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Atlanta Crafts Olympic Legacy

A year later, more tourists arrive, but some residents long for last summer's frenzy

This time last year, Kathryn Keesee was in a kind of hectic heaven. The phone wouldn't stop ringing. Hundreds of volunteers needed coordinating. Sleep was out of the question.

Yet Ms. Keesee, whose job was to promote New Balance tennis shoes during the 1996 Summer Games, was loving every Olympic moment of it.

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"It was unbelievable," she says with a touch of reminiscent awe in her voice.

This July, life is decidedly quieter. And many in Atlanta - including Keesee - are ruing the fact that the one-year anniversary of the largest peacetime event in the 20th century will be celebrated on Saturday by little more than a few fireworks and a 5K road race.

Atlanta's Olympic legacy is still in its infancy a year after the 1996 Summer Games. There's no doubt that the Games left a lasting, positive imprint on the city. The downtown was transformed by new parks and state-of-the art sports facilities, for instance.

But some key questions are only partly answered. They include: Will new business be attracted to the city? And can Atlanta be transformed into a world-class city?

These questions matter for all cities that plan to host - or want to host - the Olympics. Increasingly, cities are turning to the Games as a two-week image-burnishing and coffer-filling event. Indeed, Los Angeles cleared $225 million from its 1984 Games. But the risk can be high: Montreal still has a $1 billion debt from its 1976 Olympiad.

Perhaps the most important Olympic legacy for Atlanta is one of introduction. During the Games, millions of suburban residents earned a greater appreciation for downtown, helping to bring together residents of city and suburb in one of the most divided metro areas in the country.

"People who live in the deep dark suburbs, they saw downtown and said, 'Hey, this is OK,' " says Paul Kelman of Central Atlanta Progress, a group during Games preparations that's still working to revitalize the city.

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A darker Olympic memory still lingers, too. Little progress has been made in finding the person or people who bombed Olympic Park July 27.

In terms of financing, Atlanta did not generate the hoped-for $156 million surplus. The Olympic committee closed June 30, announcing it had broken even - earning back the record $1.7 billion the Games cost, but no more.

But several benchmarks show the city is thriving: Unemployment is at 3.5 percent, one of the nation's lowest rates, and jobs are being created faster in Atlanta than in any other city, according to a recent Manpower survey. Convention bookings are up 14 percent from 1995. More than 7 million tourists visit yearly.

But many ask how much those numbers have to do with last year's Games. "The Olympics were only a kind of a springboard for Atlanta," says Suzanne Henderson, with the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. "But we were growing before, and we'll keep growing now."

In the meantime, dozens of groups formed during six years of Olympic planning continue to improve the city. New housing downtown is being developed; Centennial Park is being transformed into a general-use green space; a new business park is being planned that would link Centennial Park with the convention center.

In addition, business leaders are trying to drum up some 3,000 new jobs from contacts made during the Games.

"Somebody who was here 10 years ago wouldn't recognize Atlanta today," says Mr. Kelman. "The Olympics were a big part of that."


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