WASHINGTON — When 1999’s largest sporting event hits the Triangle for nine days this summer, it might seem natural to expect crowded stores, packed restaurants, jammed roads — and wide-open tourist wallets.
But area business leaders and organizers of the Special Olympics World Games want to set the record straight.
The main thing Triangle residents should expect from June 26 to July 4 is goodwill. And lots of it.
The Games will bring 7,000 mentally and physically challenged athletes from 150 countries to the Triangle. They will compete in about 20 sports at Duke University, UNC, N.C. State University and other area facilities.
One thing that always happens with mega-sporting events is that expectations soar, said Reyn Bowman, Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau president. Retailers and restaurants, he said, often inflate inventories and prices to cash in on the temporary tourism.
“It’s important to get the word out and make sure businesses don’t overestimate,” Bowman said.
Community leaders have good reason to be concerned about overreaction.
Special Olympics officials estimate the ’99 Games will provide an economic impact of $60 million to $65 million and bring an estimated 400,000 spectators to the Triangle. That doesn’t include thousands who will drive in for the day, then drive home.
Those are impressive numbers, to be sure — certain to light a fire in the heart of any business person. But the figures can be deceiving because Triangle cities face overhead costs, such as preplanning for the Games and Games-related overtime for employees.
That’s what happened in 1995, when the World Games were held in New Haven, Conn., said Mitchell Young, publisher of the magazine Business New Haven.
A combination of organizers’ hoopla and the governor’s prediction that the event’s economic impact would be $100 million led local business people there to expect a sales boom, Young said.
Instead, just 13 percent reported an increase in business during the 10-day event, according to Young’s poll of 82 New Haven retail outlets following the Games. In fact, more than half of those contacted said their profits actually declined, and 30 percent said the Games had no effect on their pocketbook.
Part, if not all, of the reason for the overblown excitement was found in that $100 million figure.
Durham’s Bowman said a government or Games official can float a balloon that size because it is based on fuzzy calculations and includes all the money injected into an economy in the three-year preplanning period for the Games.
Other costs are vague, too. No one knows, for instance, how many extra police officers will have to be paid to patrol events, or how trash pickup will be affected.
It’s necessary for Games officials to throw everything into the pot when computing economic impact, but it’s misleading to business people trying to gauge what kind of sales impact to expect, Bowman said.
He developed a method to isolate visitor spending — that is, new net revenue to the area for the nine-day period of the Games — from all the other economic factors.
It uses figures from Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh that draw from 30 past so-called megasporting events the Triangle has hosted, plus visitor numbers of the previous two World Games.
Bowman projected $9 million in visitor-related spending — much less eye-popping, but much more realistic, he said.
But the most popular, and easiest, figure to report remains the official $60 million estimate. So area leaders, he said, must work overtime to keep expectations in check, especially with the U.S. Open taking place in Pinehurst the weekend before the World Games.
The need to keep business expectations realistic while keeping area residents and corporate sponsors interested in the Games presents a significant Catch-22 for mega-event host cities.
“It’s a double-edged sword, there’s no doubt about it,” said Martin Armes, president of the Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The event is going to bring a lot of visitors, but we don’t want that fact to cause normal residents in the Triangle to start making beach plans that week. We want them to stick around and attend the Games.”
Eager to make sure people understand that life as they know it will not come to a halt this summer, the Raleigh bureau and the North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry have printed postcards for hotels to distribute to frequent Triangle visitors.
The cards assure travelers that Games participants will fly on charter flights rather than regular commercial aircraft, that rental-car stocks have been increased and that 74 percent of hotel rooms in Wake County remain available for normal business.
Local attendance and corporate support is particularly important to Triangle officials because they hope to use the Special Olympics World Games as a selling point to land the Pan Am Games in 2007 — an event that could provide significant revenue, an estimated $32.8 million, for the area.
The U.S. Olympic Committee will do a site survey in August and make a decision in October on its North American candidate for the Pan Am Games, Armes said.
Special Olympics leaders in Minneapolis, site of the 1991 World Games, found corporate peer pressure — not visions of profits — to be the most effective method of generating support for the event. They chose not to predict what financial gain, if any, the area would reap.
Like the Triangle, Minneapolis was the site of several big-name sports events in the same year, including the U.S. Open and NCAA men’s basketball Final Four.
“But the Special Olympics was the only one of those that people talked about in terms of having a major, lasting impact on the area,” said Linda Ewing, president of the Minnesota Special Olympics.
Ewing said people in the Twin Cities area got involved “because corporations were told they couldn’t not be on board. It would have been socially unacceptable.”
As a result, the ’91 event was the first in the Games’ history to generate enough corporate donations to create a surplus of $2 million after all expenses were paid. Ewing says Minnesota’s secret was simple: Make money a non-issue and everybody wins.
“Our community considers it a plus that we did not sell the ’91 games on an economic pretense,” she said. “It was sold as a community event, not an economic venture, so we didn’t even measure its financial impact. People still talk about the impact of the Olympics in terms of the humanity and spirit. That’s what we wanted.”
In the Triangle, Special Olympics organizers hope to foster a humanitarian spirit while presenting the capable face to the world of a thriving region.
But they say that will take a cooperative effort, like that of Minneapolis, between area businesses worried about sales and residents who may stay home because they’re worried about getting around during the Games.
Everyone needs to understand that the last thing on the minds of Games participants and their families will be shopping at a mall or dining out, Bowman said.
“This won’t sell out the Triangle,” he said. “One of the real ironies is that malls and restaurants may actually have lower gate than they usually would have. People who attend the Games are here for a very focused purpose, and don’t have time or resources to go out and explore. This is a situation where people deserve special treatment.”
Special Olympics visitors typically spend their stay shuttling between practices and events, often grabbing meals on the run.
Bowman said businesses should realize that fewer customers isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Of far greater importance in the long run will be the reputation the Triangle builds as a place to hold international events, large or not.
“The Games are far more significant as a humanitarian event than as an economic event,” he said. “They should keep cool heads.”
Herald-Sun, The (Durham, NC) Date: February 14, 1999 Page: B1 Copyright, 1999, The Durham Herald Company