Utah Olympic Park announces major expansion — 'We’re here to grow athletes’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Young ski jumpers take to the summer training slopes adjacent to phase one of the Utah Olympic Park new Mountain Expansion project on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. The Mountain Expansion is an athlete-focused project that will provide enhanced opportunities for Utah's ski and snowboard teams, expanding their season locally and increasing the quantity and quality of training options.

Park City • An $11 million expansion announced Tuesday for Utah Olympic Park is as much about creating new generations of winter sports enthusiasts as it is preparing to host another Winter Games, officials said.

Phase one of the new Mountain Expansion, unveiled Tuesday with a groundbreaking ceremony, will devote $3.5 million to extending and improving an existing training slope and related facilities at the park for Utah’s skiers and snowboarders.

That is to be followed by two additional phases over the next two to five years that will greatly expand ski and mountain bike trails across 30 mountainside acres of Utah Olympic Park, according to Jamie Kimball, general manager of Utah Olympic Park.

As many as 10 new ski runs with vertical drops of as much as 1,220 feet could be added on north-facing terrain in those second and third phases, according to project maps.

Colin Hilton, president and CEO of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, said the initial work — to be completed in time for the upcoming ski season — will enhance training options and course availability for athletes who are into alpine, moguls, slopestyle and snowboarding, while also helping to recruit and nurture newcomers to skiing, sliding and ice sports.

Hilton said the expansion — part of a series of ongoing improvements to sports sites that Salt Lake City deployed when it hosted the 2002 Winter Games — will give fledgling competitors of all ages and abilities and would-be Olympians alike access to a world-class set of facilities and sport programs “to chase their dreams or just to have fun in winter sports.”

Former U.S. Olympic gold medalist and World Cup alpine ski racer Picabo Street called the park improvements “monumental” and “a game changer” in the lives of “the athletes of today and tomorrow. We’re investing in those dreams."

U.S. freestyle moguls skier Heather McPhie-Watanabe said she initially moved to Utah almost two decades ago from Montana to take advantage of Utah Olympic Park, which she credited with helping her improve her mogul jumping techniques and boost her athletic career.

“I’m just thrilled with this expansion project and what it’s going to be able to do for future athletes,” said McPhie-Watanabe, who competed in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Along with promoting the health of winter sports, Utah’s Olympic organizers also have their eye on Salt Lake City’s latest bid to host a second Winter Olympics, possibly in 2030 or 2034.

That decision — up to the International Olympic Committee, based in Lausanne, Switzerland — will reportedly begin to take shape this fall, although a formal announcement still could be years away.

Under a new approach for selecting host cities adopted in recent years by the IOC, Utah’s existing Olympic sports facilities — the Olympic Park, Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns, and Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Midway — are said to play heavily in favor of Salt Lake City’s prospects.

Fraser Bullock, a former 2002 Salt Lake Olympic organizer who now serves as co-chairman of the latest exploratory committee, has said Utah’s preference for being chosen to host a second Winter Games is “sooner rather than later" — mostly in hopes of bringing in an infusion of capital to improve venues, which continue to age.

Utah philanthropist Spence Eccles, who served on the Salt Lake’s 2002 Olympic Organizing Committee, was on hand for Tuesday’s groundbreaking. The 84-year old said he, too, would prefer that Salt Lake City host a second Winter Games sooner rather than later.

“I’m not sure I’ll make it to 100,” Eccles joked about the prospect of a 2034 Winter Games.

Utah Olympic Park outside Park City hosted competitions in bobsled, skeleton, luge, ski jumping and Nordic combined events during the 2002 Winter Games.

These latest improvements will give the venue more competition-level courses with more challenging pitches and lengths; a mogul course long enough for World Cup contests; a giant slalom run worthy of International Ski Federation standards; and other world-class terrain features.

Cash for the first round of improvements at Olympic Park has come from the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation — created post-2002 in part to maximize Utah’s use of its Olympic venues — as well as from donors with three athletic programs: Rowmark Ski Academy in Salt Lake City, Park City Ski & Snowboard, and the University of Utah Ski Team.

Fundraising is underway for the additional phases, Hilton said.

A 2017 audit of the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation found that the nonprofit group has kept the Olympic venues operating successfully since the end of the 2002 Winter Games. State lawmakers nonetheless committed earlier this year to investing close to $40 million in taxpayer dollars over the next decade to maintain and upgrade them — whether or not Utah gets another Olympics.

In late 2018, the foundation finished a $14 million overhaul of the Olympic Oval skate venue. The foundation has also spent roughly $2 million, Hilton said, to repair and upgrade snow-making and drainage facilities at Soldier Hollow, site of the 2002 Olympic cross country skiing and biathlon events.

According to Kimball, the first phase of improvements at Utah Olympic Park will extend the intermediate training hill near the Alf Engen Ski Museum from 500 to over 1,000 feet and improve its safety, partly by moving a segment of road further up the mountain.

The phase-one work will also add moguls, a new fixed-grip ski lift accessible by athletes with disabilities, additional lighting and improved snowmaking capacity, Kimball said.

The second-phase addition of ski runs on the park’s western slopes is already well into the planning stages, said Kimball, with work to start sometime over the next 12 to 24 months — depending on additional fundraising.

Hilton said Utah Olympic Park officials are about a month away from opening a newly constructed four-story complex with 72 units of rent-subsidized housing that will serve athletes and some of the park’s own employees.

Combined with park improvements and the addition of sports-medicine and athletic-development services, officials hope the new housing helps make the park a more affordable training destination and world-caliber multisport venue, Hilton said.

The expansion, he said, is also expected to ease preseason travel costs for athletes and their families by giving them a more integrated home base for yearly training, where aspiring Olympians can work alongside and draw inspiration from elite competitors.

Said Kimball: “We’re here to grow athletes.”