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Lessons from Heber

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The townsfolk of Heber, Utah, were determined not be left out of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.

When they heard the Salt Lake organizers were looking for a venue for Nordic events they made a presentation about Soldier Hollow, the eventual site of 23 Olympic medal competitions.

When they heard the Salt Lake Organizing Committee had run out of money and would no longer fund a entrance plaza for Soldier Hollow they raised US$100,000 and built it themselves.

Then there was the historic steam train.

The Olympic organizers banned it from being used as part of its official entertainment over security issues.

But Heber townsfolk lobbied hard and the steam train soon took to the rails, carrying Olympic Games visitors to the site of the Nordic events via a historic village sleigh ride.

"It has turned out to be a number one attraction," said Francais Anderson head of the Heber Chamber of Commerce.

It seems that Heber broke all the rules. They were also told by Olympic organizers not to try and host entertainment during the Games, as historically it had always been a disaster.

But the small town went ahead and planned a rowdy Wild West Show which, while not a run-away success, did bring in money the town wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

"We just had to go in blindly," said Anderson.

"We were warned not to do it by the Utah State Olympic Officer, but he backed us anyway. But he made sure we realized that if we succeeded it would be the first time anyone had. We figured nothing ventured nothing gained.

"Well we beat the odds here. We planned an event for every night except Sunday and we sold out the production every night."

Who cares that the crowds were mostly locals and not the national-team jacket clad competitors or their support teams.

It was still a sell-out.

"For a little town we did quite well," said Anderson who also helped organize a local shuttle service from Heber to Soldier Hollow.

The chamber was concerned that without the local buses visitors using official transportation would by-pass town on their way to and from the Games. Most of the competitors at Soldier Hollow stayed in Heber Valley hotels or with local residents as guests.

Sadly Heber’s fears were realized to some extent. While used by a few, the shuttles were plagued with problems, from poor advertising of the stops to unreliability in the schedule.

Most stuck to the official transportation which whisked visitors efficiently to Park City or Salt Lake for entertainment, relaxation, food and of course other events.

What lessons might there be from Heber’s experience? Anderson said small communities around Olympic venues must be entrepreneurial and dedicated.

"There are risk," he said. But the people who came to Heber had a good time and will tell their friends.

"If you are going to do something you have to keep in touch with the officials," said Anderson.

"Get them to listen. You are the only one who can speak up for your town."

That’s exactly what Squamish mayor Corinne Lonsdale is doing. Squamish will be a commuting hub for the 2010 Games. Spectators from Vancouver coming by boat will transfer to rail and bus service and travel on to Whistler.

"We certainly don’t plan to be left out of the loop," said Londsdale who has already met with Olympic organizers.

"I believe there is opportunity for Squamish to attract new business to the community based on the exposure we could get in the next eight years."

But she is realistic about the town’s chances of getting large numbers of Olympic spectators to visit.

"It is not realistic to expect the buses to stop in Squamish, " she said.

"But people just have to take one ferry ride to Squamish on a nice day and they will come back."

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