Albertville and Savoie Region Hope Games Will Bring In the Gold

With more than $1 billion invested, the French find the Olympics a costly route to economic revival

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN the 1968 Winter Olympics were held not far from here in Grenoble, they left in their wake a reinvigorated alpine city that is today a vibrant center of French high technology, and a new national passion for winter sports that led to a two-decade ski boom in the French Alps.

The '68 Games also left behind a costly souvenir in the form of a mammoth concrete ski jump.

Today the village where that ski jump sits, eager to get the hulking monument off its hands, is offering the jump for one Franc - about 20 cents - to anyone willing to take it over.

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As Albertville and the surrounding Savoie region complete the final touches for the 16th Olympic Winter Games that open here Feb. 8, a lot of ink is flowing over the pricey installations destined to become the white elephants of these Games: a $20 million ski jump in the resort of Courchevel, a $40 million bobsled run in La Plagne (an artificially cooled concrete snake that will cost more than $1 million a year to maintain for a sport that counts fewer than 200 practitioners in France), and a $6 million curling rink in Pralognan-la-Vanoise, a village of 600 people.

Yet just as Grenoble profited from hosting the Olympics 20 years ago, hopes are high in Albertville and throughout Savoie that the white elephants of this year's Games will lose their significance as the region develops new strengths made possible by the Winter Games.

At the same time, with France's ski industry in a three-year slump as a result of light snows, economic downturn, and shifting public tastes, officials and residents dependent on the industry are counting on this two-week window on one of the world's largest ski areas to rekindle interest in the slopes.

"Before the Games, Savoie was asphyxiating, a once-backward region that was again falling behind," says Michel Bailly, Albertville's deputy mayor for economic expansion and a member of the local Olympic committee's general assembly. "Everything we did to prepare for this event will allow us to function better and move forward again."

No one expects Albertville, a modest industrial and commercial center of 20,000 people, to become another Grenoble. But the more than $1 billion in local and national tax money spent on infrastructure and other new installations to prepare for the Games is intended to be a spark for igniting economic development.

Among the largest projects undertaken were a four-lane freeway from Chambery, Savoie's capital, to Albertville, and extension of France's very fast train, or TGV, to the Alpine resorts beyond Albertville. Notoriously narrow and dangerous roads were improved and the area's water-treatment capacities were doubled.

Albertville, too, decided its chance to make itself into something more than an undistinguished way station on the road to the ski slopes was now or never. More than $200 million was invested over the last four years, giving Albertville a new cultural center, new and refurbished downtown housing, and pedestrian walkways along downtown streets that had been stagnating.

The city also stepped up efforts to encourage creation of "mountain related" small industries to replace the area's often-polluting heavy industries that are shrinking.

Many of the dozen villages above Albertville, where Olympic events will take place, jumped on the Olympics bandwagon as well.

The tiny thermal resort of Brides-les-Bains, one of two Olympic villages to house athletes during the Games, invested nearly $40 million in public buildings, hotels, roads, and sewage treatment. The village of about 600 people is now $15 million in debt and near bankruptcy.

"It was either improve an aging resort with the opportunity provided by the Olympics, or slowly die," says Brides Mayor Jean-Francois Chedal, who defends the hefty investments even though he was not in office when the decisions were made.

All this activity has drawn some criticism from local environmentalists, who say hosting the Games will cause more construction and more people to come to a fragile environment. But the most virulent criticism of the Games's environmental impact has come from the foreign press.

Savoie's mountains experienced their biggest development onslaught in the 1960s and '70s, a boom that left incongruous high-rises in mountain villages and more tourist beds than the region's 340,000 residents. Many longtime Savoyards say hosting the Olympics will actually lead to environmental improvements.

"There's no question the mountains were disturbed, but the big mistakes were made 20 years ago when things were built quickly with little attention to the environment," says Guy Reveyron, director of Albertville's center for snow and avalanche studies and a native Savoie mountain enthusiast. "The Olympic projects resolved some environmental problems while paying closer attention to ecological fragility than has been customary here in the past."

Officials say the new freeway will eliminate annual horrendous traffic jams, while the TGV will encourage the use of public transport.

"The idea isn't to get more and more people up here," says Deputy Mayor Bailly, "but to improve conditions for those who live and work here, as well as those who come to visit."

"It's not enough to plunk down some roads and buildings to change thinking," says Bertrand Marilly, president of Barnier & Co., an Albertville manufacturer of presentation equipment for the French de luxe industry.

"The Savoyards are used to depending on themselves, the mountains taught them that," says Mr. Marilly.

"Organizing the Olympic Games has been a little kick to remind people here that prosperity is developed through openness and trade," he adds, "but there's a lot more work to be done. We have to train and educate people more if we want to keep the Olympic ball rolling."

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