Village reaps Olympic windfall -- plus fence, debt


BRIDES-les-BAINS, France -- This is an Olympic story, but barely. It is more a story about leveraging the Olympics, about youth and consequences, about paying the price for squeezing and squeezing the Games until the rings drip money.

It is about the 600 residents of this quiet mountain resort using the Olympics of Albertville to play poker with their future, and winding up with high hopes -- but also with a mortgage to cry about and a seven-foot wire fence splitting their town in half.

"The future has some people worried," says Veronique Avazov, the owner of a perfume store.

"But we have done the right thing. There is no doubt about it," says Jean-Francois Chedal, a tall, 36-year-old hotel owner and ski instructor, who, as mayor, came up with the idea of using the Games to reinvent his hometown.

He succeeded in getting the Albertville organizers to put the athletes' village here, then parlayed that into $100 million in state and private funds. The money was used to build new hotels and renovate old ones, for a new casino, city building, water treatment plant and spectacular ski gondola to the nearest slopes in Meribel.

Cost overruns left the town owing $14 million, an account too high to settle just by raising taxes -- there are only 250 families here. But not to worry, Chedal says. The money will come "in the next 15 to 20 years" from a new avalanche of tourists.

Until now Brides-les-Bains was strictly a summer resort. Located on the wrong side of the mountains -- the side that doesn't get snow -- it attracted tourists seven months of the year to a fat farm at the top of town. But now that the gondola connects it to the slopes, the town will be open almost year-round.

"The important time for us is after the Olympics," Chedal says. "It is a great and rare opportunity for a small town such as this to have the Olympics here, but what happens during the Olympics is not important compared to later."

Not all his constituents agree. The Olympics are here now, and although the public face of Brides-les-Bains is bright -- the athletes' village is a happy, colorful place where cultures mingle -- suddenly there is grumbling loud enough to be heard at the top of the mountain.

The problem is the security with which Olympic organizers always surround the athletes. The village is guarded by the wire fence cutting through town, and some shops got stuck inside, essentially killing business. Only 50 outsiders are allowed inside the gates at one time, and they have to pass through a check point and go through the trouble of getting a special pass.

"Business is dead," says Jacqueline Fabienne, a dress shop owner, pointing at the fence outside her front door. "[The organizers] said it would work, but the fence is bad. They are worried about the [terrorist] bomb. There will be no bomb. Meanwhile I have sold maybe one shirt."

Not that she is terribly upset. "Everyone is a little angry, but you know, it's OK," she says. "Normally I am closed this month, anyway. I am open now for the mayor, to support him. Maybe next week it will pick up. But the athletes [inside the fence] don't have much money."

The athletes have succeeded in turning the town into a vibrant place for these two weeks. The Isere river runs through the middle of the village. Athletes in a rainbow coalition of warm-up suits walk along the bank. A band plays. At night the town is blanketed by festive lights. "A magical place," says American speed skater Mary Docter.

But not so magical right now for Veronique Avazov, the perfume shop owner. Her store is down the street from the dress shop, inside the fence. "We are happy to have the Olympics here," she says. "It is a wonderful experience. But business is bad."

The mayor is tired of hearing about this.

"If these people don't work for one month of their lives, I don't care," he says.

He is standing on the steps of the new city building on a cool, clear morning, dressed in an expensive tan suit with an olive overcoat draped over his shoulders. His dark, receding hair is slicked back. He speaks English. In the distance, a band plays.

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