Vermont competes for Olympic Games

Vermont competes for Olympic Games

Edelstein, Art

In the Vermont Field of Dreams, Olympians race the giant slalom down a Killington Mountain slope, bobsled racers whisk around Mt Mansfield, cross-country skiers glide to victory over Bolton Valley terrain, and the ice hockey gold goes to Uncle Sam as Gutterson Field House at the University of Vermont explodes in patriotism.

If a group of sports-minded Vermonters can push their goal to fruition, by as early as the year 2018, but more realistically by 2032, Vermont could become an Olympic venue. The state would become a giant Olympic theme park with events held wherever the facilities were suitable.

While still a far-off dream, an Olympics here has appeal. What a boon it would be to tax coffers and local cash registers as thousands of international customers pour into the state to spend their out-of-state dollars on the indigenous maple syrup and cheese, while also plunking down credit cards to pay for expensive hotel and motel rooms. Local eateries would love it too, as thousands of tourists turn their businesses into culinary Towers of Babel.

Vermont would de high-profile on television and we could all watch graying morning hosts Paula Zahn or Bryant Gumble interview the participants and Vermonters-on-the-street as international audiences tune in.

The effort would be a public relations coup for the state and the international advertising the Olympics would generate could fill hotel and motel rooms for many years with the tourist dollar spin-offs. For nearly a year, the idea of bringing the Olympics here has been bandied about by a group of business people who initially came together to attend Leadership Champlain classes. They decided as a training exercise to delve into the possibility of making Vermont a place the Olympic Committee would choose as a winter (or summer) site.

From those initial discussions as a classroom exercise, what has emerged is the Vermont Sports Council. The group is dedicated to eventually bringing an Olympics here. More realistically they say, in the short run, the VSC hopes to bring a variety of more modest sporting events to the state. By becoming the premier clearing house for sports in Vermont, the VSC hopes to show the Olympians, and Vermonters, that sports could become a new growth industry in the Green Mountains.

Members of the steering committee, who met for the first time in October, believe sporting events, from girls basketball tournaments to marathon races and Pee Wee football games are a viable way for the state to go in the 21st century. Sports, they argue, is closely akin to tourism, and these events will produce more revenue from an industry that needs little infrastructure improvement. Thus the impact on taxes paid by Vermonters will be minimal, they say.

Chair of the VSC is Jim Thornton, who teaches management courses at Champlain College. He is a realist who knows most Vermonters would have a hardy chuckle at the idea of a serious early bid for an Olympics here.

“The Olympics could come to Vermont, but it would need the facilities to do it and I don’t discern global interest in the state of Vermont,” said Thornton.

Even an event like Special Olympics costs $10 million to put on, he said. “By the time we could do it, it could be in the hundreds of millions by the year 2032. We’re way into the big millions and we’re not focused,” he admitted.

Thornton said the purpose of the newly formed VSC “is to pick up on the incredible surge in amateur sports interest from soccer to rugby, lacrosse to sailing, and kayaking to mountain biking.

He points out that events like the nationally sanctioned Amateur Athletic Union’s girls regional basketball tournament scheduled for Burlington next summer will sell 250 hotel rooms in the city. Another sporting event in 1995 in Burlington, the roller blade tournament, will fill another 100 rooms. Both events are good income producers for Vermont.

Thornton said during nine months of discussions of the potential for bringing an Olympics here, “we arm-wrestled with the topic.” Eventually the class was swayed. “Our feet hit the concrete last December with Jim McKenna and Charlie Walsh from Lake Placid’s Olympics 2000 committee. They said, why haven’t you been working on this before. It gave us reason based in reality.”

A statewide 28-person steering committee of the VSC has been organized to look at growing a sports industry here, said Thornton.

Thornton can site impressive figures for cities that court sports now. “The industry is phenomenal. Cities like Ft Wayne relate events at $167 for each participant and attendee. Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, takes it at $201 a day. The state of Massachusetts figures $200 a day on average.”

Vermont, he said, “is just getting a handle on doing the measurements.”

Barry Stone, current Vermont state chairman for the US Olympic committee has been asked to serve on the board of VSC, for his fund-raising experience. “It’s realistic to get an Olympics to Vermont, but its a long time off,” he said.

Stone agrees the Olympic bid process “is way out there for the future.” Salt Lake City, currently bidding for the 2002 games, has worked on getting its bid in for six years. “You’re looking at 2018 at the earliest for Vermont,” he said.

Stone doesn’t think an Olympics here is pie-in-the-sky, actually its more like “mom and apple pie,” he said. “Vermont is very sports-oriented and people are very active. If the people are excited, they will support it.”

But Stone can count and knows his figures. “There is no question for this to happen there has to be local, state government and business involved.”

Vermont Travel Department Commissioner Bobbe Maynes likes the VSC idea. “Its a great initiative and excellent idea and concept. Many national events can be hosted here if there is pursuit of them.” She said Vermont has successfully held an LPGA tournament at Stratton Mountain resort, as an example.

“The Olympics is a way-down-the-pike-dream,” agreed Maynes. “Other events don’t take that much financial support.”

Right now, though, the state has not made specific commitments to the VSC, said Maynes. “They are working at getting organized and getting their feet on the floor. With monies tight from our budget, they have work to do to get this off the ground. We don’t have a sports marketing department.”

“To get an Olympics, you need a track record of putting on major sporting events, skating, skiing competitions,” said Stone. He said events like the Burlington marathon help show Olympic committees that events with large crowds can be handled here.

According to Stone, there will be some capital investment needed to get big events to come to Vermont.

“We’ll have to build facilities to attract the kind of crowds we’re going to need.” He knows that that kind of construction will need a concerted sales effort by his group. “It’s not easy to sell to a population, you have to look at it as a way of improving resources for the future. The facilities built would become cultural centers, and would help the local economy and quality of life, and continue to attract events. Lake Placid has managed to do this after the Olympics,” he said.

But, continued Stone, this is way off in the future. For now, the VSC will begin looking at this at the depth of the state’s sports facilities, potential promoters, and potential sponsors of events. “We’re looking at what we can do. This is at the very early stage,” he said.

“It’s impossible to tell how much business will come to Vermont.” said Walt Levering of the Burlington Econolodge; Levering also a VSC steering committee member. “We’re talking about being a catalyst and clearing house for sports into Vermont.”

He said there is “ample evidence that groups want to come to Vermont.” He points to a 45-boat sailing race in late September on Lake Champlain, which attracted hundreds of participants, crew and hangers on — all spending money locally.

Levering said there are many events in bicycle racing, mountain biking, canoeing that are currently done ad hoc around Vermont. He sees the VSC as a connecting body matching events to places. “We’re not going to promote one sport,” he added.

“I’d say within five years it will be really rolling,” Levering said.

Karen Seward of Seward’s Dairy in Rutland, also a steering committee member, wants badly to host an Olympics, especially in the Rutland region. “I’ve been in contact with the Olympic committee, so I could work with local people to generate a group that would work to bring the Olympics here, ” she said.

“I’d like to think its realistic. If Lillihammer, Norway, with a population of 15,000, can do it, it makes it realistic for a region like Rutland with 18,000 to 20,000 people,” said Seward.

Seward likes the idea of a statewide sports council.

“People are going to benefit by bringing more tourism here and generating tourism.” She said her own region around Rutland, which she categorized as “the county most dependent on tourism,” will see business generated “without the increased taxes of bringing in other types of industry. It’s an investment in our industry, which is tourism.” Currently the VSC is working with the Vermont Visitors and Convention Bureau and has hired its first employee, Jennifer Nachbur. She heads the sports council efforts for the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and has recently become director of the sports council. Additional staff at this time will be volunteers. Nachbur said her job is to support fund-raising efforts.

The VSC has also joined the National Association of Sports Commissions in Washington DC. This association supports local groups in their efforts to attract sporting events. Nachbur said there is initial interest from sporting associations in Vermont’s formal entry into the NASC.

“We want to be the people who attract the event and connect the event to a host site. We want to send out leads for sporting events,” said Nachbur.

She sees realistic sporting events promoted here in skiing, tennis, roller blade hockey, volleyball, children’s leagues. “We are looking at every level and age group of sports. It doesn’t have to be the big guns.”

While the VSC still has to review possible sporting events sites for size, Nachbur said there are several, like Gutterson, that suit tournament events. “The opportunities are endless, but we’ve not had an organized effort to do this in the state.”

Thornton said in the initial stages of the effort, the VSC will work on critical goals. “We’re going to do a statewide identification of sites, including physical characteristics. We will also identify every event organizer in the state and identify potential or present sponsors.”

Currently he said the state’s sports industry is “hit and miss.”

“We are going to have a computer-based, one-stop shopping for place, financing, and personnel,” said Thornton of the VSC.

He thinks the concept will grab the imagination of Vermonters. “People are going to attach themselves to something they believe in that gives them recognition. It’s also goodwill in giving to their communities and something they can be proud of.”

Thornton said the range of events to sponsor might cost $1,000 to $10,000. But for now, “we’re being realistic and looking at the $2,000 events.”

In its early stages the VSC, said Thornton, is getting good support. Current financing is a modest $5,000 and the group hopes to raise $25,000 in the state. It will also get help from the LCCC in its efforts. The VSC will need a budget for 1995-96 of approximately $52,000 to cover attending conferences and for developmental and public relations materials.

Thornton is upbeat about the fledgling VSC. “We’re in the beginning stages, but there is no reason the state can’t do it. We’re doing what others have proven works for cities and states.”

Art Edelstein is a freelance writer from East Calais.

Copyright Lake Iroquois Publishing, Inc. d/b/a Vermont Business Magazine Oct 1994

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