When the 1996 Summer Olympic Games were awarded to Atlanta, few could have predicted a small town outside of Atlanta would become a part of that dream. Conyers went on to win the bid to host the equestrian competitions and built the Georgia International Horse Park. Nearly two decades years later after the close of the Atlanta games, the Horse Park remains one of the few facilities built for the ’96 Olympics that is still operating in its intended use. Here is the story of how it happened.
A Shining Dream
It all started with wastewater.
Many today might not realize it, but building an Olympic-level equestrian venue - a facility that is now a crown jewel of Conyers – was an afterthought for land that was set aside to spray effluent from the wastewater treatment plant.
The city of Conyers owned the water treatment and sewage systems at the time and had their eye on about 1100 acres owned by the Banks family located near the Quigg wastewater treatment plant.
But the city realized it needed a secondary use to make buying the land financially feasible.
Mayor Charles Walker, who was mayor at the time, recalled, “We had a consultant, a Mr. Plummer. He came up with the idea of the fact the Atlanta Olympic committee were looking for a place to have the Olympic equestrian events.”
Roland Vaughn, who served as police chief from 1988 and full-time city manager after 1994, said Walker and the late Randy Poynter, who was the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners at the time, decided to see if Rockdale and Conyers could be part of the Olympic effort. “We didn’t want to be left out,” said Vaughn.
Longtime resident and volunteer Matt Dixon, who had served on the Hospital Authority and Chamber of Commerce board, was approached to head up the committee to win the bid for the equestrian events.
Dixon, who now lives in the Athens area, said she remembered wanting to be part of it, but also having doubts about her abilities.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh no, I don’t have any experience in this. Going after such a huge event? What if I don’t ask the right questions? What if I don’t talk to the right people? What if, what if, what if.’”
Then, she asked herself a different question: “When will I ever be involved in an event such as this?”
She decided to go for it.
“It was a huge undertaking,” said Dixon. “My very first thought, because we are such a small community we can never pull off something like this unless we have the whole community behind us.”
The committee she headed was made of about 60 residents, businesspersons, and volunteers, but soon the excitement spread and the whole spectrum of the Rockdale-Conyers community was involved.
For the next year and a half, organizers dove into minutia of what the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) wanted and expected. They hosted visits with dignitaries. They went to the schools to educate children about equestrian events. Students wrote letters to Billy Payne about why the events should come to Conyers. Businesses put signs up on their marquees. Senior citizens stuffed envelopes.
Conyers was competing against 13 other communities for the venue. But the city had several factors in its favor. Its proximity and ease of access to Atlanta was a big advantage. The ability to handle parking and traffic. And the equestrian experts of the International Olympic Committee approved of Conyers’ soils, recalled Walker.
When it came time to make the presentation, Dixon remembered she was told she should simply leave their book and application at the front desk.
Dixon said, “I looked at some of our committee members and I said ‘Uh uh. No, no. We have put our heart and soul into this. I’m not going to leave it on the desk with the receptionist.’”
She and five other committee members rode into Atlanta, accompanied by a police escort and cameras. In the lobby of ACOG, she and her entourage patiently waited until an ACOG staffer was able to come down and receive the book and application in person.
When it came to announcement day, Dixon was at the ACOG headquarters with Randy Poynter. “Randy and I were holding hands so tight, we were about to squeeze them off,” Dixon said.
And then, they announced the winner.
“To hear your name called by Billy Payne, it was an overwhelming experience,” said Dixon.
Conyers had won the bid, but that was only the beginning of the battle.
Stepping Up to the Plate
Rockdale County was also bidding for an Olympic event – the rowing competition, which would theoretically take place in its yet-to-be-built reservoir. The city and county had formed a joint authority, the Conyers Rockdale Recreation Authority, to handle the projects.
But concerns were brewing over financial feasibility.
On the day that Conyers and Rockdale were to sign on the dotted line with ACOG, city representatives learned that the county, which was the financially stronger of the two partners, was pulling out of the CRRA.
Norm Wheeler, who was one of the two part-time sitting commissioners, said it came from a discussion among the commissioners. “We had a commitment we had made we would not use county taxes to do that,” said Wheeler. “We sat and talked about it and decided we shouldn’t try it, not knowing what it was going to cost.”
“Looking at the monetary side of it, we felt it was not fair to the taxpayers,” said Bud Sosebee, the other part-time sitting commissioner. “Any time you see the Olympics, you don’t make a whole lot of money. You get lots of advertising, you get a lot of sales tax. But then you pay umpteen-million to build.”
Current Mayor Randy Mills, who was then a city councilman, had gone to the AGOG office with councilmen Marty Jones and Chris Bowen and City Manager Roland Vaughn.
“We found that out an hour before the meeting,” said Mills. “We lost our partner in this, in essence.” This meant the city would take on the financial risks alone.
Mills talked with ACOG President Billy Payne, Chief Operating Officer A.D. Frazier, and construction head Bill Moss. He assured them the city was likely still going forward, but needed to consult. This was the largest project Conyers had ever taken on in its history. The city would be chipping in $13 million on its end, and ACOG would be investing about $30 million. Hundreds of thousands of spectators would attend the equestrian games.
“I asked if they could give me a couple of hours; I need to contact my mayor and the rest of the council,” said Mills.
Mayor Walker and then-councilman Bill Rogers were in Switzerland at the time visiting Rogers’ son. Walker awoke to a call in the early morning hours.
Mills called them up and said, "‘Mayor, is Bill anywhere around?’ He said ‘He’s in the room over.’ I said ‘Can you wake his butt up? We’ve got a little hiccup.’”
After hearing the explanation of what happened, Walker’s response was immediate: "Just do it."
“I couldn’t see backing out at that point,” explained Walker. “It was not a hard decision for me.”
“I felt assured we could handle what we had to handle to do it. I did ask Roland if he had any doubts about our ability to carry our end of the load. He had no doubts. I had an awful lot of confidence in Roland Vaughn.”
Walker continued, “Everything in life has a certain risk to it. We all understand that. Different people might make different decisions. They made what they felt was a great decision. We can’t criticize that decision.”
Wheeler and Sosebee said they stand by their decision and that it worked out for the best. “I wouldn’t change it one bit. We three did the right thing,” said Sosebee.
Mills polled the rest of the city council and everyone approved of going ahead.
“We went back up there the next day to sign on the dotted line,” said Mills. “The rest of it is history.”
Part 2: Remembering the Olympic Dream
The city had won the bid and signed on the dotted line, but the 1996 Summer Olympic equestrian, mountain biking, and pentathalon events coming to Conyers were far from a done deal.
Bumps in the Road
To be ready for the games, Conyers had to build what amounted to another small city on raw land.
Roads, sewer lines, water lines, power lines had to be installed. Georgia Department of Transportation built the 2.5 mile spine road, or Centennial Olympic Parkway, and widened Ga. Highway 138 in anticipation of the crowds. The city was also building a golf course and the Keswick Village apartment complex was built by a private developer, with the agreement that the city could use the apartments for corporate sponsors during the games.
In the three years leading up to the Olympics, Horse Park business dominated the city council’s agenda. Conyers took out a $13 million bank note, and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games invested about $30 million into the venue. The goal was to have the park built by spring of 1995.
But no construction project is complete without its hiccups.
"There were any number of things you would never have imagined sitting in Conyers," said Roland Vaughn, who was city manager at the time.
Among the things that popped up to shut down construction was an endangered plant species discovered at the Horse Park called the “snorkle wort.” Also, many artifacts were discovered as construction crews dug into the earth, including the bones of a child buried in an unmarked family cemetery a century ago.
"You had to have the forensic folks come out, quadrant it off," which shut down construction, said Mayor Randy Mills, who was a city councilman at the time. For the artifacts, "Archeologists come in, if they have any historical significance. And these did. You could fill up a 15,000 square foot building with artifacts. That’s everything from arrowheads to pottery. You had to quadrant that off," said Mills.
But eventually, the park neared completion. In the fall of 1995, the park successfully hosted the Atlanta Classic equestrian competition as a dry run.
Just as everything seemed to be chugging along, the mayor and council received word in October 1995 of another problem, unrelated to construction.
Mills said, "We get a note from (then Agriculture Commissioner) Tommy Irvin stating that piroplasmosis has been found in Georgia. This might cause the equestrian event to be moved from the present site. Moved."
Piroplasmosis, a blood-borne horse disease spread by ticks and fleas, had been considered eradicated from the United States. Horses testing positive for the disease were generally not allowed in the country.
"We’re going gangbusters getting this thing finished up. Then we find out we might not even have it. What are we going to do now?" said Mills.
For the next two months, the city leadership held emergency consultations with experts, stayed up in late night executive sessions, and even flew to Europe to meet with European Union trade officials. All this was under the tightest of wraps as they tried to figure out how to keep the equestrian games in Conyers.
"Tommy Irwin’s office, state, federal, Food and Drug, and all the other players, were trying to get us cleared," Mills said.
The park ended up building a quarantine barn. All horses were tested as they came in. Horses that tested positive were only allowed to compete in arena events and away from wooded areas where there might be ticks.
Let the Games Begin
By the time the Games arrived, the community was swept up in Olympic fever and eager to participate in whatever way they could.
Thousands waited up until the wee hours of the morning and lined the streets in Olde Town, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Olympic torch as it came through Conyers, carried by runners such as Ethyl Boyle.
Most participants described the two weeks of the Olympics as a whirlwind, exciting time.
When the Games began, Vaughn said, "It was somewhat emotional to drive into the Georgia International Horse Park and see the stadium and the stands absolutely full. And to see all the pageantry. It was like ‘OK, it’s all come to life.’ Everything we worked on for five years. It had become reality."
Tourism Manager Harriett Gattis called it a "magical time" and a "baptism by fire" for the new Welcome Center, then located at the base of the Parker Road bridge, when it opened in July 1996.
"I’ll never forget," she said. "It was a Saturday morning, I closed my eyes and I could hear five different languages being spoken in the Welcome Center… in Conyers. This was just unheard of."
In those first two months, the Welcome Center saw more than 9,000 visitors from at least 10 different countries - about the same number it sees in an average year. Gattis estimated the park saw about 600,000 visitors during that time.
Staffers were up from dawn until late at night, and sleep became an optional commodity. "You were running on a lot of adrenaline," said Vaughn.
Legions of volunteers helped in big ways and little, from parking attendants to those working in the Welcome Center. Some took time off of work, and some companies allowed their employees to have flexible hours in order to volunteer.
Traffic, which residents had feared for months, ended up not much of a problem.
"Traffic was the smoothest thing," said current Chief Operating Officer David Spann. "They had scared everybody so bad." Many local residents either changed their driving patterns, telecommuted, and some fled town for two weeks.
The park turned over more than 30,000 spectators twice a day, and everyone was shuttled in from the parking area on Ga. Highway 138, where restaurants and offices now exist.
Royalty were in regular attendance at the equestrian competitions, along with celebrities such as actress Bo Derek.
The weather presented challenges as crowds coped with the stifling Georgia summer heat.
Initially, there were many heat-related medical calls at the GIHP - more than 100 on the first day of competition and 250 on the second day.
City Manager Tony Lucas, who was then Police Chief, said, "People (were) just falling out. A lot of the Europeans, they weren’t used to this heat, this humidity."
Thunderstorms - and the metal bleachers where visitors sat - also presented significant risks. One time the entire 30,000-plus venue had to be evacuated as a fierce thunderstorm rolled through.
Security was on the forefront of the minds of planners going into the Olympics. In April of 1995 the Oklahoma City bombing brought domestic terrorism into stark reality. Ironically, that very day, the agencies involved in Olympic security and the FBI had scheduled an exercise of a bombing and hostage scenario in Atlanta.
Lucas, who was then Chief of Police, remembered the immense amount of planning, starting in 1991.
"That was a bit insane over all those years. There were volumes and volumes of these plans laid out. But when it came to the last two weeks, you might as well have thrown it all away. You had to redo it," said Lucas.
For one thing, the 400-plus personnel a day support Conyers had been promised by the Olympic security committee never materialized.
"We didn’t get a tenth of that and didn’t know it until the day before that they weren’t going to provide those to us," said Lucas.
David Spann, current Chief Operating Officer, was in charge of security at the Horse Park during for the Olympics. "At the last moment, we were forced to say, ‘OK, let’s draw back and retreat and consider what are our most important assets,’" Spann said.
The venue was the largest in size and the second highest in attendance, with events running 16 out of the 17 days of competition. It was also a place visited by many bluebloods and royals who followed equestrian sports.
Initially there was a struggle about who would be running the show at the GIHP - the Olympic security personnel or Conyers. But by day three, Conyers was calling the shots.
"We were sort of different because we were out here to ourselves," said Lucas. "We didn’t get the scrutiny like downtown. But we realized we were going to have to take care of our own."
Spann said, "We made it clear too, when this is all said and done, you’re going on to your next gig in another town or another country. We’re going to live here. If something bad happens, we’re going to be held accountable for it and blamed for it."
Conyers did receive help from 400 different law enforcement agencies across the country. The Drug Enforcement Agency and the Maryland State Police also lent significant manpower, in part because of personal relationships Vaughn had at the DEA and Lucas had at the Maryland State Police
And the DEA brought resources with them, such as a helicopter and bomb sniffing dogs.
"We didn’t tell Atlanta because we were pretty happy about what we were getting," said Lucas.
Security dictated the pace of events at the GIHP. "Everything operated around security," said Spann. "How the mail was brought in, how the equipment was brought in, how the horses were brought in. Everything rotated around what security was able to do."
Spann said, "The competition people would always try to say competition is first. If you don’t have competition, you have nothing else. We were the opposite. Sorry, I know it’s important to you to have a crowd, but it’s more important no one’s safety is at risk here."
And then the bombing happened downtown on July 27, 1996.
"That morning when they had the bombing, I felt like somebody had ripped my heart out," said Harriet Gattis. "We were so into the excitement of it, and then to have something like that happen."
"The show went on," she added. "Atlanta didn’t let that defeat them in any way."
Spann remembered waking up to a pager call around 1 a.m. He immediately began thinking of what to do differently that day.
"It mostly changed things from the perspective of the spectators," he said. "They had to then see you. What we did start doing was running the bomb dogs through the arena where the people were so they got a sense of security. We were already doing that. But it was more from the aspect we had to provide that appearance that we were more Johnny-on-the-spot."
It was a relief when the Olympic games and the Paralympic games closed said Lucas.
"I was just tight the whole time, just hoping we could get through it without any real incidents," Lucas said. "And we did, because of all the good work everyone did."
Spann said, "It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, without a doubt, but it was the most gratifying.
"At the end, when everything went well and it was over, it was almost like a huge emotional letdown. You had worked at such a high intensity for so long and done so much to plan for it and to operate it. And then boom; when it was all over, it was like, ‘What do I do now? What can I do now to top this?’"
The Legacy of the Games
Even before the city decided to bid for the equestrian events, discussion focused on the future of the park after the Olympics.
Mills said, "Is there an endgame? Can you get at the end of two weeks and make it a cottage industry? That discussion was going on in 1992, 1993," said Mills. "You’re doing all this to plan for the day after the Olympics pick up and move. That’s the way we saw it. That’s probably why we are one of the only Olympic venues that’s still operating with what the intent was when we first opened the park."
Mills is also proud that by the time the games finished the park was operating in the black, with no debt thanks in part to corporate sponsorship the city pursued separate from the official Olympic partners.
Today, the GIHP still operates as an equestrian event venue and hosts a variety of other events, from rodeos to obstacle course endurance runs to the Cherry Blossom Festival.
"I have to pinch myself to say I cannot believe we have this here in Conyers, Georgia," said Mills.
He credits the leadership, energy, and vision of former Mayor Charles Walker and former City Manager Roland Vaughn for making it possible. "The stars were aligned… The players were in the right place at the right time to pull this off."
Law enforcement also benefited from security planning and lessons from the Olympics, said Lucas. Disaster plans and protocol created for the Olympics were used in the 2004 Bio-Lab fire and other events, he said.
The GIHP helped kick-start Conyers’ focus on tourism as a driver of economic development, along with transportation-distribution, manufacturing, and retail.
Gattis said, "I take with great pleasure going around the state and I’ve had so many communities envious of what Conyers had done: stepped up and taken a chance. We had the Horse Park to begin the promotion of tourism. Up until that time, the east side of Atlanta was the best kept secret."
Matt Dixon, who spearheaded the campaign to bring the Games to Conyers, said, "I think if you look at it today, the things we tried to get people to look at are true today. The Horse Park is a viable asset. There is no way our community could have invested the kind of money the Olympic Committee was willing to invest."
Mills agreed. "It is amazing this small community was able to pull this thing off, and methodically continued to build upon that infrastructure that was laid in 1994 and 1995."
Along with the Park, another important legacy of the Olympics is the pride Conyers found in pulling together as a community.
"It galvanized this community in a way I have not seen since then," said Mills.
"We proved ourselves, I think," said Gattis. "We showed everyone we can handle even the largest sporting event in the world. It was a collaborative effort. Everybody working together for the common cause."