Barcelona Awaits an Olympic Transformation

City hopes that world spotlight will brighten its business and tourist future

A MAN in a blue-and-white-striped shirt gestures toward it. Children point. A father bends down to explain to his son. Even the locals stop and gape at the thin silver tower rising 70 feet above Barcelona's refurbished stadium.

It's the Olympic Bowl. In a few days an athlete will light it, officially opening the 1992 summer Games and illuminating the hopes of a city. Barcelona will have the world's eyes and ears starting July 25. It doesn't plan to let go. Ever.

"It has been manna from heaven to have these Games," says Josep Lluis Vilaseca, minister of sports for the Catalonian regional government. Officials hope this Mediterranean port, Spain's leading industrial center, can use Olympic prestige to remake itself into a leading European city - a commercial capital for businesses, a must-see for the tourist.

"Barcelona is a city not well-known in the world; after the Games, it will be known by millions of people," says Enrique Garcia de Castro. He, like every other native, hopes entrepreneurs will be attracted to the city's hard-working ways and that tourists will come for its architectural and artistic richness.

The city bristles with Olympic anticipation. Signs urge residents: "Barcelona, put on a pretty face." "Cobi," the fox-like Olympic mascot, adorns buildings, billboards, and T-shirts. ("A fox!?" exclaims an incredulous tourist official. "We wanted a symbol of Catalonia. This is a dog, even if it doesn't look like it" - a Catalonian shepherd dog from the Pyrenees, to be exact.)

At a deeper level, the city is changing.

Construction is everywhere. In the city alone, 19 new premium hotels have either opened recently or will open soon, nearly doubling the city's capacity. There are two new telecommunications towers. Even Barcelona's four main Olympic sites have been placed strategically to spruce up run-down neighborhoods.

"The Games were seen as a pretext for accelerating many projects that were already known" but not undertaken, says Caridad Reixa, spokeswoman for the Barcelona '92 Organizing Olympic Committee or, COOB.

A new superhighway, talked about for decades, was completed in May. It links all four Olympic sites. More importantly, from the city's perspective, it opens Barcelona to the rest of Spain while relieving downtown congestion.

Planners located the Olympic Village along the old port, a long-neglected, seedy section of town. They tore out the train tracks that for decades had blocked the city from the sea. They created 61 acres of new seafront and 2 1/2 miles of beach. Hemmed in by the Mediterranean Sea, the mountains, and two rivers, Barcelona has always put a premium on space. By renovating run-down areas, the city is giving itself more room.

During the Games, the Olympic Village will house 14,000 Olympic athletes and officials. After the Games, its apartments will be sold. Barcelonians have already snapped up a good many.

In all, public and private interests have spent an estimated $9.1 billion on Olympic-related projects. The city says 84 percent of the investment has gone toward improving local infrastructure: roads, of course, but also a renovated airport, improved telecommunications, and new sewers and drains.

"We are not constructing the pyramid of the Louvre; we are constructing the skeleton of the city," says Lluisa Selga of Barcelona Holding Olympic S.A., a quasi-public corporation. Such Olympian efforts are risky.

"Some people say it will have a big impact for all kinds of businesses," says a local restaurant owner. "Others say: `We don't know. We have never had this experience before.' ... I talked with someone who had been in Los Angeles in 1984 [during the Olympics]. The man said it was una barbaridad of people in the street" - a phenomenal number of people.

There have been persistent questions about whether or not the Olympics will overwhelm Barcelona.

Besides increasing its hotel capacity, the city is converting at least two schools into temporary hostels and housing Olympic VIPs in cruise ships anchored along the coast. Olympic officials still worry that a victory by an Italian or French athlete will bring hordes of celebrating countrymen to Barcelona.

On the whole, though, officials are cautiously optimistic that there will be enough visitor accommodations.

The bigger question is what will happen after the Games.

Twice before, the city hosted international expositions (in 1888 and 1929). The fairs brought new construction, but they failed to put the city on the map. They also piled up huge debts.

Ask any Barcelona resident today about the impact of the Olympics and he will joke about mas impuestos - more taxes. It is only half a joke.

There's a fair amount of pessimism that the bubble will burst, says Xavier Segura, head of the research department at the Savings Bank of Catalonia.

The city estimates the total economic impact of the Games (from 1987 through 1992) will reach $28.6 billion. That's equal to nearly 1 percent of Spain's economic activity during the same period. Mr. Segura hopes that a bounce in the European or world economy will offset any post-Olympic letdown.

"We have had to make a very big gamble," says Ignasi de Delas, a Chamber of Commerce economist. But the Olympics "was a train passing in front of our house."

For Barcelonians, there was no question that they would grab on and hold tight for the fast, unpredictable ride into their future.

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