ATLANTA -- On hot days, children frolic in the cooling waters of the Fountain of Rings at Centennial Olympic Park.
At night, the fountain transforms into an illuminating spectacle of synchronized lights and water jetting 15 to 35 feet in the air to the sounds of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" or "Under the Sea" from "The Little Mermaid."
The fountain is the centerpiece of Atlanta's finest public park -- a $57 million gift to the city after the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games.
"Atlanta benefited more than any other city in the history of the Olympics," said A.D. Frazier, the chief operating officer for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympics Games. "Afterward, we had no debt and we left behind a legacy of privately funded structures the city would not have seen otherwise."
Twenty years ago, when Atlanta decided to bid for the games, it was a fairly well-known Southern city that dreamed of rising to international prominence.
Winning the Olympic bid catapulted Atlanta into the big leagues, giving it name recognition around the globe. Atlanta's $1.7 billion private-funded investment in hosting the games helped revitalize its sluggish downtown and poured $5 billion into the metropolitan area's economy during the next decade, according to the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.
Atlanta's cost was less than half of the $4.8 billion Chicago has estimated it will need to raise if the city is awarded the 2016 Olympic Games.
Thirteen years later, the financial legacy of the Olympics in Atlanta is harder to detect. Like many major cities, Atlanta has fallen victim to the recession, forced to lay off teachers and city workers while slashing services. The City Council recently voted to raise property taxes to cover a $56 million budget deficit.
According to Billy Payne, the Atlanta businessman who spearheaded the city's bid, the greatest gift was not the economic benefits, but the pride that still lingers from having hosted the Olympics.
"Winning the games is the most uplifting, prideful, beat-on-your-chest moment Atlantans ever experienced," said Payne, whose bronze statue stands in Centennial Park. "If you win a Super Bowl and a World Series and multiply it by 100, that is the passion and pride you feel about the opportunity to welcome the world to your community."
Most of Atlanta's downtown growth, the chamber of commerce said, was directly related to Centennial Park, the anchor for more than $1.8 billion in hotels, office buildings and high-rise apartments built since the Olympics.
"It consolidated efforts by Atlanta's business community and political community to say to international travelers and investors that this is great place to come and engage in commerce, and that has really boosted the city," said Michael Lomax, who headed the authority responsible for venue development.
Critics, however, said the city got too caught up in the glamour of hosting the games and lost sight of long-term goals such improving infrastructure and community development.
Olympic organizers point to the more than $500 million in new venues awarded to the Atlanta area at the end of the games, at no cost to taxpayers.
Atlanta was left with a $209 million baseball facility, formerly the Olympic Stadium and now Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves.
Georgia State University, primarily a commuter school, ended up with the Olympic Village housing complex--an $85 million, 2,000-bed dormitory.
Georgia Tech got a $24 million natatorium and a $12 million makeover of its coliseum. The city's historically black colleges -- Morehouse, Morris Brown, Spelman and Clark Atlanta -- received $89 million in athletic facilities. Other cities landed a white-water rowing center, a tennis stadium and an international horse park.
But the crown jewel was Centennial Park. What had been a 21-acre blighted eyesore on the edge of downtown was transformed into a dazzling central gathering spot for entertainment and mingling during the Olympics.
It was here that the greatest scar on the Olympics occurred--a bombing that killed one woman and injured more than 100.
Except for the flameless cauldron that towers over Turner Field, Centennial Park, with its international flags, memorial quilts and Greek columns, is the only obvious indication that Atlanta once hosted the Olympics.
That is something that troubles Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor who lobbied for the games.
"I wanted some kind of Olympic symbol placed on the front of every facility we built. It could have been just a little fountain or something celebrating the Olympics, but we were afraid to spend too much money," Young said.
Atlanta spent about $6 million in its two-year bid to win the Olympics, Young said. Afterward, the fundraising organization was broke, he said.
"When they said, 'You've won the Olympics,' they gave us a letter and a bill for $1.5 million for the victory party. Frankly, we didn't have a penny," Young said.
That's when the committee turned to private investors.
Richard Padgett, who headed the Downtown Development Authority, said it was a mistake for Atlanta to try to finance the Olympics only with private funds. As a result, he said, the city missed an opportunity to solicit state and federal funds to revitalize neighborhoods and upgrade infrastructure, such as roads and an aged sewer system that the city is now spending $4 billion to replace.
"We got a baseball stadium and a very nice public park in the heart of the city. It's tough to say there were a whole lot of results other than that," Padgett said. "The business community believes it got what it wanted. But not everyone is sure we got enough."
There is one lesson most agree can be learned from the Atlanta experience: Everyone wants a piece of the pie, but there will never be enough to go around.
Homeowners who thought they could rent out their homes for big profit were disappointed. Vendors, mostly small and minority business owners, who paid $10,000 to $20,000 to sell their wares on the street ended up suing the city after going bankrupt. Every community lobbied for a venue, but only a handful got them.
"This is not a get-rich-quick program," said Munson Steed, who was awarded the contract to market the games. "The Olympics is about economic development of cities' institutions. It's a corporate event, not a common-person event."