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Toronto Were the Pan Am Games worth it? And is Toronto Olympic-ready?

The Toronto sign, at a cost of just under $100,000, became one of the enduring images of the city’s Pan Am Games.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

We were promised an economic boon, a renewed sporting legacy and something to cheer for. With a possible Olympic bid looming, the city must quickly figure out if the Pan Am Games delivered. Verity Stevenson, Oliver Sachgau and Dakshana Bascaramurty take a closer look at the successes and failures

The Mattamy National Cycling Centre is an odd sight in Milton, Ont., a suburban town less than an hour's drive west from the buzz of Toronto. Across an eight-lane street, a 500-metre dirt path leads directly to the grey and white circular structure, which rises in the middle of a field and is surrounded by little else. Mere weeks ago, it hosted sold-out crowds of spectators, there to watch track cycling events as part of the Pan Am Games. But on a recent August evening, the only sounds outside the cylindrical building were crickets, flapping flags and the hum of a huge air conditioner. A locked fence enclosed the building.

The venue is now home to the country's national cycling team and the next event planned for it is the Canadian National Track Championship in October. But with its $56-million construction cost and its $1.1-million annual operating budget, it raises a question that hangs over the Pan Am Games as a whole: Was it worth it?

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A Sept. 15 deadline looms for cities to show interest in hosting the 2024 Olympics, which means Pan Am organizers, politicians, businesses and host municipalities are being forced to hastily evaluate the success of the Games and decide whether to go through this all over again – and on an even bigger scale.

The 2009 bid for this year's $2.5-billion Pan Am Games was backed by lofty promises: dazzling new athletic facilities, a shot in the arm for the local economy, much-needed infrastructure upgrades and a regional boost for sports culture.

TO2015, the organizing committee, still hasn't released its official numbers, but an analysis of other data and a survey of stakeholders across Southern Ontario shows mixed reviews for the largest event the region has ever hosted.

If there are any clear winners, they are the region's athletes. Before the Games, Team Canada's elite cycling division was made up of only 11 athletes who travelled to Los Angeles to train, leaving family and friends behind for most of the year. Ranks have since tripled.

"This is the first opportunity we've had in over three decades to have our own place, to have a home for high-performance and national team growth," Cycling Canada chief executive Greg Mathieu said.

Rental homes built by Mattamy, one of the velodrome's private sponsors, were set aside for the athletes, who will soon begin to train at the facility full-time. The Town of Milton hired cyclist Scott Laliberte from British Columbia to head Cycle Milton and to tour area schools to encourage youth to try the track.

For residents, there's also a fitness centre, a 300-metre running track and three basketball courts in the velodrome. The Pan Am Sports Centre in Scarborough, site of the Games' aquatics events, will play host to both elite athletes and professional swimmers.

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Beyond the prestige of hosting a major international sporting event and the upgraded infrastructure, the Pan Am Games were also supposed to bring money into the local economy.

News releases by organizers in the lead up to the Games repeatedly mentioned the expected $3.7-billion boost to Ontario's GDP between 2009 and 2017. During the event, they promised an influx of tourists would translate into money for hotels, restaurants, and entertainment.

But whether local businesses were the winners or losers in the Games will be hard, if not impossible, to calculate.

Credit- and debit-card data from Moneris, Canada's largest payment processor, showed overall spending in downtown Toronto for the duration of the games was about 7.7 per cent higher than in 2014 – a "healthy" year-over-year increase, according to Rob Cameron, chief marketing officer at Moneris.

A more impressive figure was international card spending: up almost 19 per cent during the Games in the downtown area.

"If you used the [credit and debit] cards to follow the story, you'd say more tourists were definitely in Toronto, brought in by the Games," he said.

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But Andrew Weir, chief marketing officer of Tourism Toronto, said his impression is that most Pan Am visitors were from Southern Ontario. Though he doesn't yet have final figures, he expects business in July will have remained on par with other years.

Janice Solomon, executive director for the Toronto Entertainment District business improvement area, pointed to the Summerlicious restaurant festival, the recent success of the Blue Jays and the popularity of the musical Kinky Boots at the Princess of Wales theatre as strong draws to downtown Toronto that coincided with Pan Am.

Hamilton, which hosted soccer events, did well: While total spending was up 9.8 per cent from last year, international spending was up 124 per cent.

During the Games, GO Transit ridership on the Lakeshore line, which connected many of the sports venues, was up more than 25 per cent from the previous year.

But that boost wasn't consistent across the region.

While Greyhound Canada saw a 22-per-cent increase in passenger traffic to Toronto, a Via Rail spokesperson said the company's ridership numbers "were not affected by the Pan Am Games."

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Toronto Pearson International Airport recorded 2.2 million passengers entering and leaving during the games, a modest increase compared to 2.088 million passengers during the same period last year.

The largest benefits to tourism will only be seen months or years from now, Mr. Weir said, among them the opportunity to host future events, such as the one on everyone's mind: the 2024 Olympics.

Despite widespread speculation about Toronto potentially submitting a bid for the summer games, Mayor John Tory has said he's still consulting with community groups before making a decision – likely not until closer to the Sept. 15 deadline.

The mayor added that he's asked for a report from city staff on the usability of Pan Am venues for a potential Olympic Games.

"It would disappoint me if all that investment we made in very excellent facilities was not to be, under these new rules, something to be taken into account, if one wanted to bid."

A bid would cost $50-million to $60-million, and hosting could run $3.3-billion to $7.7-billion, according to a 2013 feasibility study by Ernst & Young commissioned by the City of Toronto.

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The estimates run high because many of the venues built for Pan Am are so far from Toronto that they may not meet Olympic committee standards. Some events were in Minden Hills (more than two hours from the city), Welland (90 minutes) and Hamilton (one hour).

Rio de Janeiro invested heavily in facility construction when it hosted the 2007 Pan Am Games, which many say was part of a longer game plan to win an Olympic bid for 2016, which it did.

But several venues fell into disrepair or were deemed not up to IOC standards, which meant organizers have spent the past few years rushing to renovate or build new facilities.

It's difficult to extrapolate how well Toronto might do as an Olympic host based on its turn with the much smaller Pan Am Games, but when Vancouver-Whistler hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, spending there increased 48 per cent, according to Moneris data.

If Toronto wants to successfully host the Olympics, Mr. Weir said the city will have to substantially rethink its messaging around transportation. Worries about traffic and HOV lanes scared a lot of people away from visiting the downtown core during the Pan Am Games, he said. That hurts businesses and can't be repeated, he said.

"An event like this needs to be positioned as something you want to be a part of, not something to plan around," he said.

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Whether the city plays Olympics host or not, Pan Am's organizing committee sees the expenditure as worthwhile. Allen Vansen, TO2015's executive vice-president of operations, sport and venues, said the most impressive legacy of the Games is the Athletes' Village, a $709-million project that is now being converted into condominiums, a George Brown College student residence and affordable housing. Waterfront Toronto received funding to expedite the planned neighbourhood because of the Games.

While elite athletes competed at the sports venues during the Games, Mr. Vansen says the facilities were designed to be used in the long term as both community recreation and high-performance centres.

"I guarantee you, we will see athletes that will be using these venues for the first time. It'll be their introduction into track cycling or into swimming or athletics. And they will be representing Canada at the Pan Am Games or Olympic Games in decades to come," he said.

The organizing committee has been quick to deem the Games a success, but problems linger at some venues. The $145-million Hamilton soccer stadium was to be used before and after Pan Am as the new home for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats CFL team, which has a 20-year lease with the City of Hamilton, the stadium's owners.

But major construction delays forced the Ticats had to play half a dozen of last season's games elsewhere, which cost the team $1-million per game. Several items required at the stadium were also not delivered on time, and the team had to spend millions to rent or purchase them for temporary use. Ticats chief executive Scott Mitchell said he is working with the city as part of a claim process that could end up in court.

A subcontractor on the project has sued the city, Infrastructure Ontario and the building consortium that was awarded the contract for mismanagement.

Contractors at the $45.5-million athletics stadium at York University have claimed they are owed extra fees for work that exceeded what their contracts outlined.

Even after legal disputes are settled, host municipalities will have to wait to see if the promises of Pan Am pan out.

Mr. Laliberte, of Cycle Milton, is confident Milton will be made into a veritable hub for cyclists, with its smooth roads and proximity to Mississauga and Toronto.

But Milton Councillor Rick Malboeuf is concerned this niche community isn't big enough to sustain the three-storey, 14,240-square-metre structure and could leave his town in debt.

Hamilton had previously turned down being the host city for the cycling track. Poor use of Montreal's velodrome after the 1976 Olympics prompted the city to turn it into the Biodome, an ecological attraction. When Winnipeg hosted the Pan Am Games in 1999, it built a temporary venue for cycling.

Pan Am has made a commitment through a legacy fund to cover a portion of the operating costs for the velodrome, the Scarborough aquatics centre and the athletics stadium at York University. But Milton will still be on the hook in the long term, as the fund is worth $70-million over 20 years.

"I think it's going to become a white elephant," Mr. Malboeuf said. "I can't see how those sports will cover the cost of that velodrome."

With a report from Ann Hui

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