A month after the close of the Sochi games, it’s clear that the Winter Olympics have come a long way since the 1980 games in tiny Lake Placid. As the winter games move on to South Korea in 2018, the host for the 2022 games has not been selected yet. No American cities are among the contenders, and by 2022, it will have been 20 years since the United States last hosted an Olympics (summer or winter), in Salt Lake City in 2002. Salt Lake City (population 189,314) far eclipsed other American communities that had hosted the Winter Olympics (Lake Placid in 1932 and 1980, and Squaw Valley in 1960) in terms of population, and it hasn’t been since the 1994 games in Lillehammer that a small town hosted the Winter Olympics. But after the excesses and empty seats of Sochi, some are looking for a return to a more restrained Winter Olympics wherever they may end up in 2022 and beyond.
Already, a group in Boston is promoting that city as a potential host for the 2026 games, with venues in the White Mountains serving a key role. But with its rich history of winter sports (the Nansen Ski Club, founded in Berlin in 1872, is the oldest in America) and abundant scenic beauty, New Hampshire could be a contender for a future Winter Olympics in its own right–smaller than Vancouver or Salt Lake City but much bigger than Lake Placid or Lillehammer, and not far from Boston and New York City. That prompted friend-of-the-site and co-founder of the Rimmon Heights neighborhood group, Gary Therrien to muse about the possibility of the Winter Olympics coming to New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
“[Sochi] once was unheard of [and] now becomes a notable spot on the map. This made me think, could New Hampshire host an Olympic games? … An Olympic Games in New Hampshire has the potential to help New Hampshire grow … this would be a statewide event.” -Gary Therrien
Therrien’s idea inspired LivableMHT to imagine Manchester’s role in a statewide Winter Olympics. With the Verizon Wireless Arena, a handful of smaller ice venues, a mid-sized airport, several thousand hotel rooms nearby, and (barring political maneuvering to scuttle it) a rail connection to Boston by 2022, Manchester would be well-situated to host the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and a bulk of the ice events. And like the White Mountains, Manchester has a rich history of winter sports, hosting the second largest Winter Carnival in the country in the mid-twentieth century.
A new stadium for the Opening and Closing ceremonies could be built in Derryfield Park, affording sweeping views of the downtown Manchester skyline and the Uncanoonuc mountains as a backdrop. The scene is especially impressive as night falls and the city lights come on in winter.
Of course, a new stadium built just for two ceremonial events wouldn’t make much sense, so the stadium would need to either host an Olympic event like speed skating, which has been held outdoors in the past, or find a long-term tenant. UNH is currently–and somewhat controversially–planning to build a new $25 million, 10,000-seat football stadium in Durham. While building it on the Durham campus has obvious advantages, the stadium could alternatively be built in Manchester, which like UConn’s stadium in Hartford, would attract more spectators and alumni from the state’s largest city. Manchester could even try to attract the New England Revolution, who are considering building a stadium in Somerville, Mass. The stadium could be planned for its permanent use with temporary additional seats for the Olympics, and the Olympic Cauldron perched on a hill just outside the city center.
Alternatively, much more temporary seating could be built at one of the city’s existing stadiums, such as those by West High School or Livingston Park. A temporary stadium by West would have downtown Manchester and the Merrimack River as a dramatic backdrop, but would likely not be as secure or as flexible as a stadium in Derryfield Park.
The Verizon & Other Existing Venues
The Verizon Wireless Arena, with seating for 9,852, could host ice hockey or figure skating, as could the somewhat smaller Whittemore Center, 33 miles from Manchester in Durham. While both the Verizon and Whittemore are slightly smaller than recent Olympic venues, they are modern, attractive and big enough to host a sizable crowd. Curling, as well as some preliminary hockey games, could be held at the 1,500-seat Sullivan Arena at Saint Anselm College and a revamped and expanded JFK Coliseum, which currently seats 1,600.
White Mountain Venues
At LivableMHT, we won’t pretend to know the first thing about skiing, but we do know that New Hampshire has no shortage of ski resorts. Oslo may be able to boast that most events would take place within five miles of the city in its bid for the 2022 games, but Vancouver, Sochi and other cities featured mountain venues a good ways outside the host cities. At 90 miles, the White Mountains aren’t much farther away from Manchester than Whistler is from Vancouver.
The state-owned Cannon Mountain and Mittersill ski area in the heart of Franconia Notch State Park is not only an acclaimed slope, but an exceptionally photogenic one. The mountain could host alpine skiing events alongside a new Olympic Park to host bobsled, luge, skeleton and ski jumping, which would become a major draw to the mountain after the Olympics. Nearby Waterville Valley could host additional events, with the Nordic events taking place at the expansive Bretton Woods cross-country ski trails or elsewhere. Loon Mountain, already home to a superpipe, could host several of the snowboard events. Like Vancouver, a Winter Olympics in Manchester would likely require a separate Olympic Village for the mountain events, which could be housed at Plymouth State University.
New Venues in the Queen City
Manchester would certainly need to provide a suitable place for the Opening and Closing ceremonies, as well as at least upgrading–if not replacing–venues like the JFK Coliseum for competitive events. But the biggest venue the city would need to build would be an Olympic Oval to host speed skating. The Olympic Stadium could possibly host outdoor speed skating, but more likely the city would need to build a massive new skating center.
The Olympic Oval could be built in any number of spots, but it would be crucial to consider its post-Olympic life in determining a site. After the games, the oval could become a large recreational center, with multiple skating rinks and other amenities, or perhaps an exposition and convention center. The city is already considering allowing private tenants to renovate the West Side Arena beneath the Kelley Street bridge, but the site could also be the home of an Olympic Oval. There could be traffic issues, however, with such a large venue tucked down narrow city streets, and while it would be a suitable location for a recreation center, it would not make sense as exposition space.
Another possible location might be the site of the recently closed Stop n’ Shop on Valley Street. The remaining tenants would have to be relocated–perhaps to new mixed-use development in the area–but the Valley Street shopping center sits on a plot of land that is just about the perfect size for a speed skating track. The Valley Street location would be easier to get to than the West Side Arena, and could help revitalize the area after the Olympics, either with an athletic cluster along with the adjacent JFK Coliseum, Gill Stadium and Basquil-Sheehan Park, or as an exposition center not far from downtown.
It would be critical to find a place for a secure and accessible Olympic Village, likely split between Manchester and the White Mountains. Housing at Plymouth State University could serve as an Olympic Village for the outdoor events, but finding a spot for an Olympic Village in Manchester could be more difficult. The city is fortunate to not have vast areas of vacant land in the city center, but that that good fortune would complicate the siting of an Olympic Village.
Recently, there have been proposals for a large student housing project on the Pearl Street parking lot downtown. Potentially, the site could be developed as an Olympic Village with housing towers that could be converted to student housing, and micro-apartments targeted to young workers and artists after the games. Another possibility would be the redevelopment of the southern end of Elm Street near the Rivers Edge into an Olympic Village, which could become apartments after the games. Alternatively, housing at St. Anselm College or SNHU could possibly be used for an Olympic Village in Manchester.
Investment & Infrastructure
Even competing to host the Olympic games would require a significant investment, and of course committing public money to just about anything is never easy in New Hampshire. It would require a statewide effort, combined with aggressive private commitments, to seriously contemplate Manchester and New Hampshire as a host to the Winter Olympics. But the return on that investment could be huge for the state, and the games could provide additional impetus for many other projects already under consideration, from commuter rail to better local public transit, from a new stadium for UNH to better skiing facilities in the White Mountains, from a convention center in Manchester to a rebranding of the city, in part as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
Before the games, the city, state and private developers would need to build more than just the Olympic venues. Additional hotels, some of which could be converted to other uses after the games, would need to be built in and around downtown. Park space would need to be improved, especially Arms Park, which could host outdoor concerts and other events during and after the games. A new Union Station transit center would need to be built to handle the visitors who would arrive by train and bus from Boston, and as a hub for an improved MTA bus service to carry visitors and residents to venues across the city. Zoning would need to be revisited to encourage and direct private development and rehabilitation, which would inevitably pick up in the run-up to the Olympics.
During the games, Elm Street, Hanover Street and Old Granite Street could be closed to vehicular traffic and function as a space for spectators and visitors to eat, drink, shop and experience the Olympics and enjoy the city. The parking lot between Granite and Old Granite streets could be replaced by a park between the Verizon and a new Union Station. McIntyre Ski Area could be marketed toward visitors looking for the unique ability to enjoy some light skiing on a slope a stone’s throw from the Olympic venues.
Of course, competition is fierce and bringing the Olympics to any city is little more than a pipe dream, but it’s fun to imagine the games coming to the Queen City, and all that could mean for the city. As many people are dreaming of a Summer Olympics in Boston, we’re guessing that Gary Therrien isn’t the only person to have imagined New Hampshire hosting the Winter Olympics. Whether as part of a larger New England Winter Olympics or on its own, it might not be so far-fetched to image Manchester and New Hampshire following Boston’s footsteps to seriously consider making a bid for a future games. 2026 is only a dozen years away: the next Bode Miller or Mikaela Shiffrin could grow up dreaming of winning gold in Franconia Notch and downtown Manchester.