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Pittsburgh gets letter seeking interest in hosting 2024 Olympics

| Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, 1:36 p.m.
The Olympic torch is lit during the Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 27, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Imagine the world's best athletes marching through Heinz Field to the national anthem as the Olympic flame burns at The Point.

Though it may seem farfetched, city and county leaders can envision that.

“Pittsburgh is on the map,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said. “We've hosted major events before. It's definitely something we should take a look at.”

The United States Olympic Committee this week sent letters to 35 mayors, including Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, to gauge interest in hosting the 2024 Summer Olympic Games.

Ravenstahl said he would not dismiss the idea outright.

“Certainly, there would be extraordinary obstacles and challenges to meet in putting a bid together,” he said. “We will reach out to community members to gauge their interest.”

Ravenstahl said city officials “welcome opportunities to tell our comeback story to the world. It wasn't long ago that we hosted a safe and successful G-20 summit.”

The letter from committee CEO Scott Blackmun outlines a host city's infrastructure and venue requirements — some that might be difficult for Pittsburgh to meet. The Olympics would require an operating budget of more than $3 billion, not including costs for venue construction and infrastructure improvements.

The region lacks many Olympic staples, including a stadium for track and field that could seat close to 100,000 spectators and an Olympic Village to house 16,500 athletes.

But Jimmy Sacco, director of stadium management at Heinz Field, said the football field — with its view of Downtown, Point State Park and the city's three rivers — would be an ideal setting for opening ceremonies.

“I think it would be great,” Sacco said. “We proved ourselves to the world with the Winter Classic and how Pittsburgh opens its arms to the world. Yes, we could handle it.”

But would we want to?

Playing host to the Olympics can lead to a higher global profile but rarely economic windfall, some analysts caution.

“The great majority of cities end up spending more money than they take in,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College in Massachusetts, author and expert on the economics of major sporting events.

Host cities typically spend billions of dollars on stadiums, roads and other infrastructure, and continue for years to pony up millions of dollars in maintenance for underutilized facilities, he said.

“I don't think it's something any rational city should look at as an economic opportunity,” Zimbalist said.

Fitzgerald agreed that officials must guard against lingering costs. London — which used low-cost, reusable facilities when it hosted last year's Summer Games — might be a model, he said.

“We would need to learn from other cities and see how they did it,” Fitzgerald said. “We don't want to spend millions of dollars for something that will only be used for a very short period of time.”

A 2012 report from New York investment firm Goldman Sachs said the Games in London are expected to make a profit “in the sense that revenues will exceed the cost of running the games, but this will still leave the government with a significant bill from construction, security and other costs.”

That bill was more than 9 billion pounds, or more than $14 billion, according to British media reports.

Craig Davis, president and CEO of VisitPittsburgh, doubts Pittsburgh is big enough to seriously consider making a bid.

“I would suspect Pittsburgh doesn't have the infrastructure,” Davis said.

A key issue is the number of hotel rooms. The Olympic Committee requires host cities to provide 45,000; Pittsburgh has about 24,000.

“You could go up to Erie, down to West Virginia, (but) I would suspect that Pittsburgh is just too small,” Davis said.

Improvements to public transportation would be needed. Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said it is too soon to address specifics of quickly transporting the masses of an Olympic games, but said Port Authority has successfully handled large events.

Airport Authority spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny said Pittsburgh International Airport could accommodate increased air traffic.

“We're prepared to meet those needs. We have the available ramp area and runway space,” she said.

The committee requires a workforce of up to 200,000 people. Allegheny County alone reported a civilian labor force of 668,000 in December, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry. In the seven-county Pittsburgh metropolitan region, the labor force balloons to 1.27 million people.

“It's not a people problem,” VisitPittsburgh's Craig said. “It's an infrastructure problem.”

The U.S. committee has about two years to decide whether to bid for the games and choose a city. A spokeswoman for the committee declined to comment.

“While the games require a formidable commitment, they also provide an unparalleled opportunity for a city to evolve and grow,” Blackmun wrote to Ravenstahl.

Staff writer Jerry DiPaola contributed to this report. Chris Togneri and Alex Nixon are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Togneri can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com. Nixon can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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