Analysis: Park City’s Main Street pedestrian idea would not recreate Olympic magic

Coca-Cola sponsored a pin-trading location along Main Street during the 2002 Winter Olympics. It was one of the popular temporary attractions that went up for the Games as Main Street was turned into a pedestrian-only celebration zone. Park City is considering an idea to largely pedestrianize Main Street on certain days this year in a bid to boost business at a time of economic concern amid the spread of the novel coronavirus. There are significant differences, though, between the pedestrian zone during the Olympics and the one now under consideration.
Park Record file photo

It was magical, many Parkites recall.

Tens of thousands of people walking up and down a pedestrianized Main Street in February of 2002, stopping to watch a concert or trade pins. They turned their heads skyward for fireworks each night. They awaited the regular appearances of the Budweiser Clydesdales on Main Street.

Some just simply took in the revelry of a Winter Olympics in a community that was billed as the Alpine Heart of 2002.

Main Street was a key locale during the 2002 Winter Olympics, so high profile that the organizing committee that put on the Games teamed with City Hall to create a car-free celebration zone that ran the length of the street. It became one of the Olympic region’s gems as word spread through the international crowds that Main Street in Park City was a hotspot that rivaled the celebration zone in the host city of Salt Lake City.

Even 18 years later, people who were in Park City for the Games talk with fondness of Main Street in 2002. There were corporate interests temporarily along Main Street during the Games, but they did not seem overwhelming like some see with the big businesses that rent space for the Sundance Film Festival each year. There was noise into the late-night hours and there were crowds meandering through the neighborhood surrounding Main Street, but it didn’t seem to bother the people of Old Town like the aggravation sometimes expressed nowadays during the busiest times of the ski season.

As Park City leaders prepare to consider a proposal by the organization that represents businesses in the Main Street core to mostly pedestrianize the street on certain days, the comparisons to the Winter Olympics are inevitable. Main Street is pedestrianized during the Park City Kimball Arts Festival annually, and the Park Silly Sunday Market closes lower Main Street to traffic on Sundays in the summer and fall, but the proposal by the Historic Park City Alliance involves the most substantial ban on traffic since the Games.

The Main Street businesses are worried about sales in the summer and fall amid the continued concern about the spread of the coronavirus and economic havoc it has caused. Main Street was largely shuttered for weeks this spring, and the shops and restaurants have started to open gradually. Main Street leaders are crafting plans to attempt to blunt what could be a difficult summer and fall after the cancellation of the Silly Market and the loss of the 2020 edition of the Tour of Utah bicycling race against a backdrop of wider concerns about health and finances.

One of the ambitious concepts forwarded by the Historic Park City Alliance is the creation of a pedestrianized zone along most of Main Street on select days, allowing vehicles only on the cross street of Heber Avenue. The organization sees the concept as something that would draw people to Main Street in an era of social distancing. Backers say it would be a chance to provide more room for pedestrians off the sidewalks that can sometimes become cramped on the busier days of the summer.

The ideas put to the elected officials were not devised with visions of a 2002-like scene on Main Street, which was considered at the time to be an unprecedented marketing opportunity for Park City’s tourism industry. There are instead important differences between the Historic Park City Alliance proposal of today and the blueprints that were drafted in the years before the Games and then unveiled to the masses as the Olympic cauldron was lit in Salt Lake City. With so many longing for better times, those differences could leave some disappointed if they are hoping the magic of February of 2002 will be revived on Main Street in 2020.

The differences include:

• the availability of funds to put toward a Main Street pedestrian zone. Funding is a central issue to any ideas to pedestrianize Main Street, regardless of whether the concept calls for a Games-long closure to traffic, as was the case in 2002, or a weekly traffic shutdown that is under consideration now. There are stark contrasts between the pre-Games era when the plans for Main Street were developed and today. The funding for the Olympic celebration zone came from a variety of sources that allowed for the extraordinary activities and entertainment along Main Street in 2002. It is difficult to identify a dollar figure since funds were earmarked by a variety of corporations, the Olympic organizers and City Hall itself, and much of the total was raised and spent privately.

It is certain the total figure soared into the millions of dollars, possibly into eight digits, when accounting for expenses like temporary building rentals, entertainment, construction and teardown as well as the behind-the-scenes operations of the celebration zone. As they contemplate the Historic Park City Alliance concept, Mayor Andy Beerman and the Park City Council appear to have little financial leeway to move substantial monies toward the idea. The elected officials are amid the most difficult budget talks since the depths of the recession a decade ago as they attempt to close a projected revenue shortfall of $3.9 million in the 2020 fiscal year and address a forecasted revenue shortfall in the 2021 fiscal year of upward of $8.6 million. City Hall is simply not in a financial position to fund a spectacle that even approaches what was seen in 2002. Others, like the Historic Park City Alliance, are also believed to lack the financial resources to make a major investment.

• the crowds that would be drawn to Main Street on the pedestrian-only days as compared to the Olympic hordes. It is impossible to predict how popular the days would be under the idea to create a largely pedestrianized Main Street, but the crowds would not be anywhere near the size of those that descended upon Main Street during the Olympics. An estimated 500,000-plus people swarmed onto the street during the Olympics. The celebration zone was within walking distance of two competition venues — the ski racing and snowboarding at Park City Mountain Resort and the ski racing and freestyle skiing at Deer Valley Resort — and became a place for people with tickets to the competitions to gather before and after the events, and to mingle with the many others who did not hold a prized ticket to a competition. It was a hub from the morning until late at night. The accolades for Main Street circulated among the spectators across the Olympic theater. It was a relatively slow start on Main Street during the Games, but more and more people arrived as they heard of the buzzing atmosphere in Park City. It is a much different scenario in 2020 as many people are wary of crowds as they attempt to practice social distancing, and health officials have signaled limits on gathering sizes could be in place through the summer as part of the coronavirus-fighting efforts. A pedestrianized Main Street this year, then, could be designed to encourage separation between groups of people rather than, as in 2002, contrived to inspire the masses into an Olympic camaraderie with people across the globe celebrating shoulder to shoulder. It is an essential difference in the lines of thinking. While the organizers in 2002 sought to create a nexus on Main Street, those readying ideas this year have different motivations even as they hope to attract crowds that are sized suitably for today.

• the absence of high-caliber temporary attractions that accentuated the celebration zone and made Main Street somewhere the crowds wanted to return repeatedly throughout the Games. The budgetary constraints Park City officials must contend with this year as they consider whether to mostly pedestrianize Main Street present a very different scenario than the one in the period before the Olympics. The leaders of Park City as the Games approached reached a series of agreements with a variety of parties, including, importantly, the Olympic organizing committee, to have a presence of some sort on Main Street. City Hall in that period desired a Main Street that was highly accessible to the crowds rather than one that exuded exclusivity. The temporary attractions were some of the principal elements leading to the success of Main Street during the Olympics. The Budweiser Clydesdales delighted the people lining Main Street, people gathered around giant video screens, there was a Coca-Cola-branded spot for the Olympic hobby of pin trading, temporary concert stages were built and a nightly fireworks show over Main Street wowed the masses. Neither Main Street nor City Hall holds the desire of pursuing attractions that would rival those of the Games, an indication they are clearly far too grand even at a moment when dramatic steps are otherwise under discussion. Main Street instead sees possibilities in providing additional opportunities for al fresco dining and sidewalk sales. There is a chance with those types of offerings to boost profitability along Main Street with limited costs to the businesses, the Historic Park City Alliance says. More al fresco dining and sidewalk sales also could each be seen as promoting social distancing and as being attractive to people who remain worried about exposure to the novel coronavirus.

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