DENVER — Colorado leaders plan to pursue the Winter Olympics — but only if voters back the idea.
An exploratory committee that has been reviewing whether or not to pursue the Olympics announced Friday that Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock have accepted its recommendation that Denver and Colorado pursue a bid subject to approval of a statewide referendum in 2020 or later.
Denver had to back out of hosting the Winter Games in 1976 after voters rejected funding for the event, making it the only city in Olympic history to give up a winning bid.
This time, the committee thinks the Olympics can be held with private money — meaning it wouldn’t require a public vote, which is needed to raise taxes or issue debt in Colorado. But given the state’s history, the committee of top business and political leaders wants to ask voters for their blessing, nonetheless.
Polling commissioned by the exploratory committee found that most Coloradans would support an Olympic bid, which is expected to cost $1.9 billion or more. The committee plans to finance it through a mix of private sponsorships, ticket and operational revenue and an estimated $559 million contribution from the International Olympic Committee.
But anti-growth sentiment is on the rise, particularly in the Denver metro area, where residents are increasingly choked by traffic congestion and housing costs after years of explosive growth. An organized opposition, calling itself “NOlympics ,” has already surfaced, with the backing of former Gov. Dick Lamm, who led the effort to torpedo the 1976 bid. The group is skeptical taxpayers can be shielded from the costs, pointing to budget overruns in other host cities.
Even supporters cite concerns — and not just with the costs. The exploratory committee’s report listed a number of possible drawbacks, including traffic, the environmental impact and the potential effect on low income, elderly and homeless people who could be displaced without sufficient housing.
Backers, though, suggest that hosting the Olympics could have the opposite effect that some opponents fear. They say it could spur long-needed investments in infrastructure and mass transit to alleviate traffic along the I-70 corridor between Denver and the mountains. In ski resort towns facing existing housing shortages, new housing built for athletes could be converted and maintained as an affordable option for workers.
“These events could serve as a catalyst to help solve challenging issues statewide, including growing traffic congestion and the housing crisis,” Mayor Hancock said in a statement.
The U.S. Olympic Committee doesn’t plan to try to bring the Winter Games to the U.S. until 2030. Salt Lake City also plans a bid.