At the moment, all seems chaos. The Olympic Park in the city centre, which will be the focal point of the celebrations, is a sea of mud and bulldozers. Shopfitters are working 18 hours a day to finish the new shops at the airport. But construction being what it is, you would expect a last-minute scramble and there is no reason to doubt that come July the place will be ready. Atlanta is accustomed to growth.
On the simple measure of job creation, it is the most successful city in the US. Other cities can probably learn something useful from the way it has handled the games; but they can learn something even more useful if they can understand how the city has been so successful in creating permanent employment.
The job numbers are stunning. The city - or rather the metropolitan district, for the city centre has a population of only 400,000 while the district is now 3.7 million - has been creating between 40,000 and 100,000 net new jobs a year since the beginning of the 1990s: more than half a million jobs in the past decade. It is creating jobs faster than much bigger cities, like Chicago. So the Olympic Games will hit an economy that is already growing very fast.
This is crucial to understanding the likely impact of the games on the economy. Hosting the Olympics can be anything from an economic catastrophe, loading future generations with unpaid debts (Montreal), to giving a solid boost (Barcelona), or perhaps not having any notable effect either way (Los Angeles). The trick is not just to make the games pay in themselves, but rather to use them to stimulate more lasting growth. Atlanta has almost certainly succeeded in the first, but achieving the second goal matters more.
There were two principles behind the Olympic strategy. The first was to use existing facilities wherever possible, as Los Angeles did. So to create the Olympic Village, they took over two-thirds of the campus of Georgia Tec, the technical college a couple of miles from the city centre. Soccer, softball, hardball, judo, gymnastics and some other sports all use existing facilities at Georgia Tec, Georgia State University, or other venues around the country.
This self-evidently cuts the costs, but it does not leave a legacy of new facilities. So the second principle was, when building anew, only to build for use after the games. If the permanent need were different from the temporary one, they built for the former, then adapted it for the latter.
The best example of this is the new stadium. It will used by the Atlanta Braves. But they only wanted a 40,000-seater, while the Olympics need 80,000 seats. So the stadium has been designed for the baseball team's needs in the newly fashionable "retro" style; but for the Olympics it will have the extra capacity, which will subsequently be ripped out. Another example is the aquatic facilities, which will be used by the Tec and will have 4,000 seats; but capacity will be more than doubled for the games by adding temporary seats. The location is not ideal and there will be traffic jams; but that is surely better than building the ideal pools for the games and then having them in the wrong place ever after.
The finances? The Olympic committee is spending $1.7bn, and it has said it will not make a loss, though it is not forecasting a profit. Presumably, on a narrow accounting, the sums will show some kind of modest plus. From the point of view of the local economy, however, there will be a considerable profit because of the additional money brought into the state.
The most thorough study of that, The Economic Impact on the State of Georgia of Hosting the 1996 Olympic Games, by Jeffrey Humphreys and Michael Plummer, puts a $5.1bn ticket on the whole event. That is made up of $2.6bn of direct and indirect spending and a further $2.5bn of spending by visitors from 1991 through to 1997.
Beyond even that is the visibility Atlanta will attract from worldwide, wall-to-wall TV coverage for 17 days. That is very hard to quantify. If things go well, it is likely at the margin to attract more inward investment into the state: Georgia already is second only to California in the number of Japanese companies established there.
I suspect that, when the dust settles, there will be some net economic gains over and above the new facilities that will have been built. But since the city is doing so well anyway, all that will have happened is that it will have grown a bit faster than it otherwise would have done. Several residents I met talked of the games "putting Atlanta on the map". But if you are the headquarters of Coca-Cola and CNN, and have people like Whitney Houston and Elton John living there (Mick Jagger also has a pad), you are pretty much on the map already.
Indeed from the point of view of economic strategy, the most interesting thing about the Atlanta region is the breadth of the base. It has got itself into a string of growing sectors and has no "smoke-stack" legacy. Having soft drinks and media is a good start. Being a centre for sports personalities is immensely helpful. Atlanta is the new hot city for the record industry. It has the second busiest airport in the world (after O'Hare in Chicago - Heathrow is only the busiest for international passengers). But it also has middling-sized manufacturers, many from abroad, attracted by the general pro-business climate.
And that is the key to understanding Atlanta. It is determinedly, drivingly pro-business and it has been for the past 30 years. The Olympics is driven by business. Tax and spending policies are driven by business. Even policies on race are driven by business as captured in the slogan "The city too busy to hate". Atlanta has made a determined effort to curb racial tensions and has probably managed these less badly than any other large US city.
Inevitably there will be costs in the rapid growth that this business- first attitude has created. The building boom has meant that Atlanta is a heat island in an already hot state. There are problems with sewage. There is a lot of concern about the quality of the public schools. Crime is high.
But if you want jobs, this is how to get them. As you watch the Olympics, remember you are watching one very visible example of how the US city most strongly driven by business interests goes about ... its business.Reuse content