Utah’s leaders hint at pet projects ahead of next Olympics

Transit, open space and accessibility are among the top priorities as Gov. Spencer Cox, SLC mayor Erin Mendenhall and senate president Stuart Adams weigh in.

(Julie Jag | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fraser Bullock, the president and CEO of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games, speaks at a media conference outside the Salt Lake City mayor's office on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. Local government leaders, including (from left) Sen. Stewart Adams, Gov. Spencer Cox, former Olympic speedskater Catherine Raney-Norman and SLC mayor Erin Mendenhall expressed excitement for the return of the Winter Olympics.

Fraser Bullock stood, beaming, at a dais in front of the Salt Lake City mayor’s office and a slew of local government leaders Wednesday.

For more than a decade, Bullock has been part of a group working to bring the Olympics back to Salt Lake City. At times, the bid’s progress has felt glacial. Finally, though, the International Olympic Committee last weekend sent what Bullock called “strong signals” that the state would once again be allowed to welcome the world for the Winter Games, likely as early as 2030 or 2034.

“Before that, our odds are kind of here, which are pretty good,” said Bullock, the local bid committee’s president and CEO, while holding his hand waist-high. He then raised his hand to his shoulder. “I would say after that, our odds are up here where they’re excellent that we will be hosting future Games.”

(Julie Jag | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fraser Bullock, the president and CEO of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games, speaks at a media conference outside the Salt Lake City mayor's office on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.

Local leaders may be setting similar tiers when it comes to the projects they want to see pulled off prior to the arrival of the Games. Depending on which edition Salt Lake City is awarded (there’s also a minuscule chance it won’t host at all), the state will have as much as a decade or as little as five years to implement changes that will impress thousands of visitors and billions of television viewers while ideally also being of use to the community long after the last medal is awarded.

Though their priorities vary — ranging from expanding public transportation options to creating more public spaces — all the government leaders gathered for the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games’ press conference Wednesday were enthusiastic about the possibilities.

“Getting that award,” Gov. Spencer Cox said, “will allow us to then start to dream big about what we want to do.”

For example, Cox pointed out TRAX and the Frontrunner train as long-sought projects that got a strong tail-wind from the 2002 Games. Mass transit will need to be addressed again before the next Olympics, he said. That could include the completion of what he called “last-mile projects” as well as the construction of urban and “multimodal” trails designed to make cities more walkable and bikeable.

The governor also expressed his hope that a Major League Baseball stadium, which Bullock said could double as the medals plaza, will be built before Utah again hosts the Winter Games.

The magic of the Olympics, Cox noted, is that it sets a deadline by which projects must be finished.

“It also gives us a marker,” he said. “And I think having goals and markers are really important, especially in government, where far too often … people just look to the next election. This gives us a horizon of sorts.”

Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake City’s mayor, said her office has been pushing forward with projects that fit well with her vision of the city as an Olympic host but would carry benefits even if the Games never return. Among those are the creation of the Open Streets, a temporary pedestrian promenade downtown that she has designs on making permanent, and an increased investment in parks and trails.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pedestrians stroll in the open streets portion of Main Street, on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022.

Mendenhall also stressed the need for expanded transportation. At the top of her list is a fourth TRAX line that would run down 400 West past Pioneer Park and into the Granary District. She said some funding for that and other projects have come via the Inflation Reduction Act. The Olympics could create a deeper tap into those funds, she said.

“I am hopeful,” she said, “that if we are awarded the Games, our applications to access those federal tax dollars to do these kinds of projects will receive some great favorability because of our opportunity to host the world.”

Senate President Stuart Adams did not pinpoint any pet projects. However, he said he expects the Legislature to find funds for infrastructure projects and to cover any sponsorship shortfalls if necessary. He said that would be done with the expectation that the Olympic committee would be able to pay back any funds it needs to host the Games. Investments in infrastructure, he indicated, would pay their own dividends in the improvement of quality of life.

Utah followed that blueprint in 2002, he noted, and came away as one of the very few Olympics to turn a profit. This despite running 24% over budget on expenses tied directly to the hosting of the Games. The host committee then used the estimated $50 million surplus to create the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation. The nonprofit’s endowment pays for the upkeep of the venues from the 2002 Olympics, though managers have said another Games or more money is needed to keep the well from running dry.

“I can’t imagine with our reputation and the success of 2002 that we are not only going to pay for the Games but will make money. And it will make money not for making money’s sake but for the maintaining of the venues for a good quality of life,” Adams said.

“It’s a bright thing not only for Utah but for the rest of the world.”

Is five to 10 years enough to accomplish all that?

“Oh, we could do it tomorrow,” Adams said. “We’ll be ready.”

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