Creating opportunity
How The 2002 Olympics Sparked Salt Lake City’s Economic Revival
Takara Small | August 4, 2016

It’s been more than a decade since Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, but the city’s entrepreneurs and small businesses are still reaping the benefits.

The Games cast a global spotlight on the diverse economy of a city that had been mostly known for its ski summits, beautiful scenery and large Mormon community – not its business opportunities. More importantly, the Olympics catalyzed the construction of infrastructure projects that continue to be a boon for local businesses.

Chief among those projects leading up to 2002: upgrading the city’s primary airport and building a light rail system. Making it easy for business travelers to get in and out of a city, as well as travel within it, is crucial for growth, according to Troy D’Ambrosio, the executive director of Utah’s Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.

He says that upgrading travel infrastructure in time for the Olympics helped plant a seed in the mind of future investors and entrepreneurs: Here was a beautiful, no-hassle city that was less than two hours by plane from San Francisco—not much further than Los Angeles. It just needed to be connected.

“The Games really cemented the connection with Silicon Valley and other hubs,” he said. “Some entrepreneurs, investors and venture capitalists even ended up with homes in the ski area, so that strong connection has lasted even longer than some people might have thought.”

That’s not the only Olympics-related upgrade that helped the city become a first-class small business hotspot. The city invested in better broadband service in its downtown core to accommodate large streams of internet traffic during the Games, an investment that continues to benefit entrepreneurs and business owners.

Strong entrepreneurial connections have also helped boost the reputation of the city’s small business community over the years.

Salt Lake City landed among the country’s top 20 startup and innovation hubs on our annual Innovation That Matters study released earlier this year, elevated by strong quality of life scores. Forbes named the city one of the top 10 best cities in America for business and careers and last year it was named one of the best places to launch a startup outside of New York City and Silicon Valley. CNBC also named Utah the best state for business in 2016.

Entrepreneurs have taken notice. Take Ron Heffernan, founder of consulting firm LDD Partners, as an example. Heffernan fell in love with the city in his youth and returned to start a new business in the early 2000s.

Heffernan initially visited the city after graduating from college, but after a couple of months of what he called “bumming” around, he decided to move to New York City. Later, he and his wife decided to relocate to Salt Lake City in part to take advantage of infrastructure the city was building for the Games.

“I always used to say this is where I want to retire, because when I was younger I couldn’t find a job or see myself starting a business here,” he explained about his years right after college. “Knowing that the Olympics were coming here and the infrastructure was improving meant that, in our minds, there wasn’t a better spot to go once we decided to leave New York City.”

Heffernan saw so much entrepreneurial potential in his new home city that he eventually helped launched a non-profit co-working space called Church and State, named for its location near both a church and State Street in the city’s downtown core. Anyone in the community can use its workspace for free.

Heffernan has worked hard to build a thriving business and accelerator. But he acknowledges the major role the Olympics played in helping businesses like his thrive.

He believes the Games gave the city positive exposure and a sense of credibility, which have helped his company secure work with clients looking to set up shop in less expensive startup hubs. A new Korean medical device company looking to penetrate the U.S. market is now working with his firm for precisely that reason, he said.

“Salt Lake City is a soft landing city for international companies that are looking to launch their businesses because we have the infrastructure, resources and are close to San Francisco,” he said. “This is directly attributable to the Olympics.”