This story is part of "Atlanta Remembers: The 1996 Olympics," WABE's series on the impact of the 1996 Summer Olympics on Atlanta, 20 years later. For more stories, click here.
On a sunny summer day in downtown Atlanta, students dart across the main plaza of Georgia State University, with very few students lingering in the stagnant, 90-degree heat.
Nestled in between the school’s library and Langdale Hall off Peachtree Center Avenue, the plaza, with its bubbling fountain and sitting areas, has been the heart of the campus since GSU’s days as a commuter school.
During the school year, more than 32,000 undergraduates and graduates roam the downtown streets of the urban campus. When factoring in Georgia Perimeter College, which GSU acquired earlier this year, that number jumps to more than 50,000.
For comparison, in 1996, when Atlanta hosted the Olympic Games, GSU’s student body was around 24,000.
Soon, the university will acquire Turner Field, formerly the Olympic Stadium and centerpiece of the games. That acquisition has left some to ask whether, looking back 20 years, GSU turned out to be the biggest beneficiary of the games.
A Commuter School
GSU sociology professor Tim Crimmins says there’s no question the Olympics helped Georgia State grow into what it is today, a sprawling downtown urban campus. But he says that growth happened in a roundabout way.
Crimmins, who’s worked at the school since the 1970s, says what fast-tracked GSU’s growth was its first student dorms, which were originally built to house athletes during the Olympics.
Prior to the Olympics, GSU was known as an evening commuter school with graduate programs for busy professionals, not a destination for first-time freshmen.
“For GSU, the residence halls were a critical element,” he says. “Without the residence halls, we wouldn’t have been able to increase enrollment; we wouldn’t have been able to attract the undergraduate population that we’ve been able to do.”
There was one rub to get those dorms, though: They had to be built across town on Georgia Tech’s campus.
“With all of the construction of residences for the Olympics, they had to be within the security perimeter, which they created around the Georgia Tech campus,” Crimmins says. “Tech didn’t have the capacity to absorb them all, which is what gave us the opportunity for the Olympic dorms.”
With Tech not having enough students to fill all the new housing, the Olympic Village became GSU’s golden opportunity to have a dorm even though it wasn’t on the school’s campus.
Patrick Glisson, who served as chief financial officer for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and, prior to that, as CFO for the city of Atlanta under then-Mayor Andrew Young, says the city and GSU had for years been trying to get some student housing on campus because they saw it as a way to revitalize downtown Atlanta.
“The way the city of Atlanta was at that moment in time, as far as downtown, was a vibrant business center,” Glisson says. “But at night, people went home.”
Glisson, who’s a GSU grad, says prior to the Olympics, state lawmakers – and by extension the state university system – were reluctant to chip in money for dorms because they wanted to keep GSU a commuter school.
“It always seemed to be in that era that it was we vs. they,” Glisson says. “You can go further into pulling the onion apart and see other rationales, race being one. Atlanta was governed by a black mayor in a big city, and the rest of the state didn’t look like that.”
Glisson says the GSU dorms on Tech’s campus were a way to prove there was a demand for student housing at GSU and, if successful, a backend way to get dorms on campus in the future.
The Georgia Legislature in 1993 approved more than $100 million in bonds to help build the Olympic Village, which was turned into student housing for GSU and Tech. GSU used housing fees to pay off its portion of the debt and interest.
A Successful Plan
GSU sold the Olympic Village buildings back to Tech in 2007 and used the money to build the University Commons on Piedmont Avenue, though by then it had other student housing on campus.
Georgia State’s Crimmins says housing more students on campus helped the school grow.
“What that did is it increased the state contribution that comes from the subsidy of student tuition, and it increased tuition,” Crimmins says. “That gave us the wherewithal to begin to acquire additional properties.”
Professor Harvey Newman, who teaches urban policy at the school, says Georgia State’s growth can’t be pinned to one event, like the Olympics.
“I think [the games] had an incredibly important contribution to make in the process,” Newman says, adding there were other factors that led to GSU’s explosive growth.
The Hope Scholarship, introduced around the same time as the Olympics, motivated more students to choose in-state schools. After the Olympics, Atlanta also became the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the U.S., amid a national trend of urban growth.
Newman says Georgia State’s leaders and city leaders have been keen to take advantage of all of those opportunities, not just the Olympics.
“Through the history of this city, at every point it’s been civic-minded business and political leaders working together that have made Atlanta what it is,” Newman says.
The urban policy professor says the acquisition of more buildings, like Turner Field, just falls in line with those ambitions.