How The Olympics Changed Atlanta, And What Boston Could Learn

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Centennial Olympic Park, in Atlanta (Alison Guillory for WBUR)
Centennial Olympic Park, in Atlanta (Alison Guillory for WBUR)

First in a three-part series. Here's Part 2 and Part 3.

ATLANTA — This is the last U.S. city to host the Summer Olympics.

Atlanta scored an upset when the International Olympic Committee in 1990 chose it over five other cities to host the 1996 games, not long after Los Angeles hosted in 1984. Atlanta was not considered a world-class city.

Set amid rolling hills far from an ocean port or a major river, Atlanta was mainly a ground and air transportation hub with a reputation for hospitality. Even so, Atlanta even beat out Athens, which was bidding to be the sentimental host of the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics.

But that upset win did not surprise Shirley Franklin.

"Atlanta has been boasting about Atlanta for a long time," she says, laughing. "So the Olympics was not the first time!"

Atlanta's Shirley Franklin worked on the organizing group for the 1996 Summer Olympics. “I don’t know anybody in Atlanta who didn’t think the Olympics were good,” she says. (Alison Guillory for WBUR)
Shirley Franklin worked on the organizing group for the 1996 Olympics. “I don’t know anybody in Atlanta who didn’t think the Olympics were good,” she says. (Alison Guillory for WBUR)

Back in the early '90s, Franklin was in local government, helping to run the city of 3.4 million people. After Atlanta won the bid, she joined the local Olympics organizing group, taking charge of relations with labor unions, civil rights and community organizations.

On a recent trip, Franklin drove me around Atlanta, showing me how the '96 Summer Games changed the city.

"So all this housing that we’re passing on the right is new, and came because of the Olympics," she says from behind the wheel of her car.

Driving through Summerhill, a neighborhood bordering the Olympic Stadium, Franklin stops on a street of single-family homes overlooking a field with a huge track with joggers on it. The park was the practice field for track and field events.

"In this small neighborhood of let’s say 4,000 people, you had 1,000 vacant properties," Franklin says.

The local Olympics committee funded the park. And millions of dollars of community grants poured into the neighborhood. Some blighted houses were demolished. New buildings went up, providing mixed-income housing and single-family homes. So did basic things like streetlights.

Franklin said Atlanta had always wanted to revitalize its poor neighborhoods, many of them majority African-American. She said the Olympics gave the city new energy.

"The Olympics was one of those periods, one of those five-year periods, when people from all backgrounds decided to do what’s right," Franklin says. "Not just to host great games, but right by the folks who lived in some of the lowest-income communities."

Not every neighborhood got as much investment and came out as well as Summerhill. On the other side of the stadium, there are boarded-up houses in the Pittsburgh neighborhood. Franklin said the community development work continues.

"As we can see, would we all have preferred not to have had the Great Recession?" she asks. "Yes. I’m sure this community has suffered some but not the way it would have had it not had this huge new investment."

And considering the debate going on in Boston over potentially hosting the 2024 Olympics, what Franklin said next might seem like crazy talk.

"I don’t know anybody in Atlanta who didn’t think the Olympics were good," Franklin says. "Were they perfect? No. I don’t know anyone who thought it was bad for Atlanta."

A Changed Downtown

Outside of Atlanta, people remember the 1996 Olympics as the one with the bombing. But in Atlanta, almost across the board, people say the Olympics changed their city for the better. Some go so far as to say the Games transformed Atlanta, especially downtown.

On hot days — and there are plenty of those in "Hotlanta" — Centennial Olympic Park, located downtown, gets really popular.

"I’m very much grateful for the fountain!" laughs Nyshelle Daniel, who brought her three kids to play in the "Fountain of Rings" in the shape of the Olympic logo.

Before 1996, the park was an area of rundown warehouses. It was not part of the original plan. Private money, $75 million of it, turned 21 acres into the centerpiece park for the Olympics and, today, downtown Atlanta.

A view of downtown Atlanta (Alison Guillory for WBUR)
A view of downtown Atlanta (Alison Guillory for WBUR)

Daniel remembers how the games shaped her neighborhood, too: It got sidewalks.

"Then they started putting up more historical displays," she recalls. "So not just this [downtown park] — it pretty much brought up the morale of a lot of neighborhoods that contribute to the city of Atlanta that a lot of people weren't aware of."

Another at the fountain, Tiffany Arnold, came to Atlanta after the Olympics.

"I used to live around the corner, but I didn’t have any kids then," she says. "But now that I have a daughter, I get to bring her out here."

Arnold moved into the first new housing development downtown in decades. The developer got a lease from the Olympics organizers to house security officers during the games. That cash helped cover the upfront construction costs. Afterward it became an apartment building.

"We now have 10 times more residents living down here than we had before the games," says George Hirthler, who was part of Atlanta's bid to get the 1996 Olympics. He said before the games, downtown was just a bunch of office buildings where workers fled to the comfy suburbs at night. He said city officials had always wanted more people living downtown, and the Olympics was key turning point.

"In some ways, it’s the greatest engine a city can harness," Hirthler says. "Because it’s going to drive you toward that deadline and you can accomplish a lot more. If you’ve got the games and the money that is coming in from the games, you can accomplish a lot more with them than you possibly can without them."

Why not just build a fountain? "Nobody would have ever built a fountain here," Hirthler says. "It wouldn’t have happened."

Georgia State University professor Harvey Newman says the 1996 Olympics "enabled us to do some things that the city’s leadership had been trying to accomplish for many years.” (Alison Guillory for WBUR)
Georgia State University professor Harvey Newman says the 1996 Olympics "enabled us to do some things that the city’s leadership had been trying to accomplish for many years.” (Alison Guillory for WBUR)

Georgia State University professor Harvey Newman said the '96 Olympics had an uneven impact across Atlanta. Some neighborhoods like Summerhill and the one around the birth home of Martin Luther King Jr., got the bulk of the investment, along with downtown.

"Overall very positive," Newman says of the impact. "It enabled us to do some things that the city’s leadership had been trying to accomplish for many years."

Newman also says the Olympics provided a deadline.

"You had a goal, you had a timeframe," he says. "And it was incredibly important to get everything right and get ready for company coming to town."

Before the Olympics, organizers had conducted surveys to assess Atlanta’s image globally. Respondents said they had a positive view of Atlanta, especially its casinos.

They were confusing Atlanta for Atlantic City.

"After the games, no one made that mistake," Newman says. "Because of the 5 billion people on the planet, at least 3 billion people tuned into some part of the Olympic coverage. And that was of enormous benefit."

Business grew after the games. Already home to Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines, Atlanta attracted more corporation headquarters. Nearly 20 years after the Olympics, Atlanta ranks ahead of Boston as home to Fortune 500 companies.

Professor Newman says he expected a hangover, a post-Olympics slump.

"I thought, 'No way we can sustain that,' " he says. "To my astonishment, the building frenzy that had started in the six years building up to the games was just a prelude."

When Atlanta won the bid in 1990, there were 50,000 hotel rooms in the city. By the end of the '90s, there were 100,000. And tourists kept filling them. The hangover never came.

It didn't hurt that a trend of growth was lifting the Sun Belt region, and that Atlanta revitalized its downtown ahead of a national trend of people returning to cities' urban core.

It also didn't hurt that Atlanta's Olympics operating budget ended up in the black. Local government paid $234 million to fund direct costs of staging and planning the games, about 10 percent of the total direct cost of $2.4 billion.

Comparing Apples And Peaches

However, preparations for the games had more lasting impact on the city than the Olympics themselves, says Franklin. She says even neighborhoods at Atlanta's edge got community-development fever.

"What happened is people started to direct their attention, and said, ‘OK, we have a window of opportunity and we’re going to take advantage of it,’ " she says.

Because the Olympics were coming, foundations gave more money to community development. Georgia state government helped out more, too. Local companies and businesses encouraged their workers to volunteer in neighborhoods. Franklin says all of those things had a lasting impact on the city.

"In Atlanta we say, ‘Well, we did it for the Olympics! Why can’t we do it for this?’ " Franklin says.

She should know, because six years after the Olympic flame was extinguished, she was the first black woman to be elected mayor of a major southern city, in 2002. She says the Olympics made her job easier.

"It wasn’t that it happened during the Olympics," Franklin says. "What happened is that people became accustomed to getting to do new things. And trusting each other."

One example is all the development that followed around the Centennial Olympic Park downtown. The Georgia Aquarium opened in 2005 as the largest in the world. The College Football Hall of Fame opened last year, and so did the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

"Had we not had the Olympics would any of that happen?" Franklin asks. "Possibly. Was it easier to do because we had the Olympics and we had this history of doing things together and thinking out of the box? I’d say yes."

Even so, she warns that what worked for Atlanta may well not work for Boston. After all, Boston in 2015 is a very different city than Atlanta in 1996.

Boston is older, more congested. It already has a dynamic downtown. It needs working subways, not sidewalks.

It’s a little bit like comparing apples and peaches.

Franklin says Bostonians should ask themselves whether the Olympics will help the city reach its goals, as much as she believes the 1996 Summer Olympic Games did for Atlanta.

"What we learned 20 years ago," she says, "may not be exactly what you need to know today."

This segment aired on June 3, 2015.

Headshot of Curt Nickisch

Curt Nickisch Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.



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