A little more than a decade ago, a group of business executives and civic leaders envisioned a moment when the world's eyes would be riveted by events in the Baltimore-Washington area: the lighting of a cauldron followed by two weeks of elite athletic competition.
The group hoped to bring the 2012 Summer Olympics to the region — and with it, billions of dollars in revenue and tens of thousands of new jobs.
Baltimore would be the scene for soccer, gymnastics, triathlon, cycling and field hockey. The waters near the Naval Academy would be used for the sailing competition. The hills of Patapsco Valley State Park would challenge mountain bikers. University of Maryland dorms would provide a temporary home for athletes.
And, though the organizers had no way of knowing it then, they also might have given Michael Phelps home-field advantage in his final Olympics.
"The area had everything in the world to offer the International Olympic Committee," recalled John Moag Jr., former chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority and a leader of the Washington-Baltimore 2012 Regional Coalition. "We all felt good about it."
But when the U.S. Olympic Committee picked its candidate in 2002, the region's bid lost to New York, which lost to London three years later, when the International Olympic Committee made its choice.
The rejection was not only a blow to local civic pride, but also an economic letdown.
"A lot of federal money is secured in the name of the Olympics," said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an associate professor of tourism and sports management at George Washington University. "We missed out on federal transportation and beautification dollars. The University of Maryland missed out on money to improve its dorms. In the private sector, hotels and restaurants missed out on hospitality dollars."
Dan Knise, president and CEO of the coalition, said projects that likely would have received an Olympic-sized financial boost included Baltimore's proposed $2.2 billion Red Line light rail, a new Baltimore arena and upgrades at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the field hockey site.
"I think there would have been a lot of new things," Knise said.
Many cities have benefited from holding the Olympics. Once-dowdy East London is getting a makeover, with new pedestrian bridges and walkways. After the games, the media center will be converted into an office building and the athletes' village will become apartments and subsidized housing. An expanded railway system will be a boon to commuters.
In 2002, Salt Lake City greeted spectators with an expanded airport, upgraded highways and a new light rail system.
"The Olympics were good to the city and the region," said former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. "There's a sense of real joy and accomplishment. I don't think there's any question that it was good for civic pride, and that's going to have a lifetime impact."
But there can also be a downside.
Until Los Angeles showed the world how to turn a profit in 1984 by lining up scads of sponsors, holding the Olympics was often a red-ink affair. Denver walked away after securing the 1976 Winter Games when voters rejected a $5 million bond to pay for them. Montreal posted a loss of $1 billion on the 1976 Summer Games.
Without the U.S. Olympic Committee quietly forgiving as much as $50 million in debt, organizers of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta could not have claimed that they broke even. A post-Olympics economic analysis by Georgia Tech University showed that during the Games, sales were off in Atlanta shops and restaurants, traditional tourism dropped, air travel was down — and taxpayers shelled out millions.
That was not the expected scenario for the Baltimore-Washington region.
A 2000 economic impact study conducted by Richard Clinch of the University of Baltimore and Stephen Fuller of George Mason University projected that the Olympics would cost $2.04 billion to build and run, with a return of $5.32 billion in total economic impact — $6.72 billion in today's dollars. The lead-up to the Summer Games was expected to support the creation of nearly 70,000 jobs.
"But to make this work, we needed more of Maryland than just the Washington suburbs," Fuller recalled. "We needed Baltimore. We needed all the hotel rooms, all the venues and all of the attractions. It brought together two economies that weren't normally thought of together. I think it was a good marriage."
So good, in fact, that a promotional flier at the time shouted: "This is regionalism brought to life!"
The Washington-Baltimore 2012 Regional Coalition invested three years and $9.5 million to craft a 600-page bid. Organizers lined up financial support from corporations such as Verizon, Legg Mason, Bank of America, Giant, Marriott International and the company then known as Mobil.
In the proposal, organizers projected selling 8.5 million tickets and attracting more than 5 million visitors.
"I thought that of the eight U.S. cities, Washington-Baltimore had the best bid," said John Bevilaqua, a former Coca-Cola executive who worked on the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games. "It had the scenery, it had the water and the history, it had the venues."
Just before the prospective host cities submitted their bids to the U.S. Olympic Committee, Mitt Romney, the 2002 Winter Olympics chief, said there was "not a prayer" that one of them would get the 2012 Games.
"It wasn't helpful," Moag said dryly.
New York got the nod based in part on 9/11 sympathies. But by 2005, an unpopular U.S. president and two unpopular wars worked against the city on the international stage, and New York finished fourth out of five finalists.
Had Washington-Baltimore prevailed, the region would have benefited for years afterward from a wide variety of legacy venues to attract national competitions in swimming and diving, gymnastics and soccer — and with them, thousands of high school and college athletes and their families, Fuller said.
"Whoever gets the Olympics gets a major boost," he said. "Nobody is going to build these specialized facilities unless they get the Olympics."
So this summer, instead of fighting traffic and tourists, and finding favorite restaurants booked solid by partying dignitaries and media big-shots, Baltimore and Washington residents are watching TV along with 200 million other Americans.
And that's too bad, say the folks who have seen what the Games can do for a region.
"Yes, everybody would be stressing out right now," Neirotti said, "but there's an electricity that runs through an Olympic city that's hard to match."