Lasting Olympic treasures in Gwinnett

The signs aren't obvious.

There is no torch here, no park, no rings.

In many ways, Gwinnett seems like a spectator in Atlanta's Olympic glory.

But if hundreds of the world's best athletes and thousands of spectators converge on the metropolis, the suburbs can't be forgotten.

Only one venue remains in Gwinnett from the 1996 Olympic Games, but there are still some hidden treasures of the event that brought the world to Atlanta.

"It is a good story that needs to be told," said Cat Ford, who played his own role in Gwinnett's Olympic history.

He helped one of two local high school stadiums be built out of parts of Olympic Stadium, which were being disposed of when it was converted to the Braves' Turner Field.

Now, he's not sure that even the Meadowcreek athletes know about the history of the stadium.

"It's kind of gone into the world of the aged," he said.

"It's a neat thing that nobody else had," said Greg Gaines, who did the same thing for Collins Hill High School. "It's a legacy."

• Friday Night Lights

Cat Ford once read in a newspaper that Meadowcreek High School would never have a stadium. The community would never come up with the money and support to build it.

The assistant principal decided he would take the job on himself. And when he learned that seating and light poles would be available when the Olympics left town, he finally saw a way for the dream to come true.

He bought tickets to check out the sites and worked a concession stand throughout the games. He even called bingo games for three years to raise the money.

At the same time, Greg Gaines heard that parts of the Olympic stadium would be demolished and he saw a way to get a stadium for Collins Hill High Schools. For both schools, the only costs were to transport the concrete sections to the suburbs.

Eventually, both men were successful, and a part of the Olympic legacy is where fans sit every Friday night in the fall to cheer on the Mustangs and Eagles.

"It's where we saw Michael Johnson set a world record," Ford said. "I can even place it in the Olympic Stadium."

• A place to stay

Between 1995 and 1997, 25 hotels opened in Gwinnett County.

According to Lisa Anders of the Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Olympics shepherded in the biggest period of hotel growth the county ever experienced.

When the Games began, Anders said few of the hotels were full.

But the visitors bureau worked with local radio stations to get the news out that people could stay in Gwinnett, and the hotels were 90 percent full by closing ceremonies.

• Go with the flow

Expecting a traffic nightmare during the 1996 games, transportation officials decided to build a network of cameras and cables to try to find the smoothest flow for cars.

The Georgia Department of Transportation built a traffic management center to monitor the flows around metro Atlanta and they even put the cash together to build a smaller system in Gwinnett.

Since then, the system has expanded, and automated traffic lights have become a popular way to combat traffic.

The DOT's Georgia Navigator system - now on the World Wide Web - has become a popular way for people to determine their routes to and from work.

Today, the county's traffic control center is outdated, and most of its monitors are on the fritz, but a construction crew is already working on a new center near the Gwinnett Water Resources Department.

• In the air

Traffic to and from the Olympics wasn't just on the road. It was also in the air.

For the festivities, the Federal Aviation Administration allowed the county to put up a temporary control tower at the Gwinnett County Airport at Briscoe Field.

Shortly after that, the county got permission to put up a permanent one.

"I think all the traffic for the Olympics probably accelerated us getting a permanent tower," said Bill Powell, deputy director of the Gwinnett Department of Transportation.

• Tennis, anyone?

The only still-remaining Olympic venue in Gwinnett is the Stone Mountain Tennis Center.

Built for tournaments between world-wide competitors a decade ago, the center has recently fallen into disrepair and tournaments are less frequent.

But during the past year, officials have made attempts to revive the center, and a production company is actually using the 8,000-seat center court as a concert venue.

During the Olympics, a temporary veladrome was built near the tennis center for bicycling events.

Canoeing and kayaking events were held at Lake Lanier, and the site in Hall County often hosts rowing competitions. In addition, Rockdale County's horse park is still hosting equestrian events.

A month after the Olympics left town, the Gwinnett Convention Center hosted a wheelchair table tennis tournament for the Paralympics, an international competition of disabled athletes.

According to Cheryl Gee, marketing director of the Gwinnett Center, the event gave Gwinnett a reputation as friendly to the disabled.

Recently, the county's new arena, which is a part of the convention center's campus, hosted a wheelchair basketball tournament.

Mike Eddy of Suwanee Sports Academy said the Olympics began a boom of sports in the metro area. The academy was built shortly after the games, and it now trains athletes for world-class events.