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Games both blessing, burden for Robertson

While all those issues would be hard to handle at the best of times,Roberston has faced them with the added pressure of the upcoming 2010Winter Olympic Games.

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Gang warfare. Freak snowfalls. The start of the H1N1 pandemic.

The first six months of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Roberston's mandate brought multiple crises.

While all those issues would be hard to handle at the best of times, Roberston has faced them with the added pressure of the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

With the world watching, the host city's happenings have suddenly become international incidents.

But Robertson said the Games are also an asset that are providing a boost to his priorities.

"The Olympics have given us a clear deadline and pressure points in our conversations with the province and federal governments," he said in an interview around his first year in office.

"Provincial and federal governments have longer timelines and having a clear date to demonstrate progress and deliver on needed resources was useful and it still is. We're not done yet."

When elected, Roberston set an ambitious goal to end homelessness by 2015.

In the last year, federal and provincial governments and the city have announced money for everything from bunk beds at a downtown church shelter to the refurbishment of entire hotels.

The provincial budget on housing has tripled since 2001, two years before the Games were awarded to Vancouver.

But housing advocates say over 1,400 beds have vanished since the city won the Games and rumours persist that Vancouver's homeless will be rounded up or jailed to keep them away from the world's eyes during the Games.

Robertson campaigned for safer streets from the city's gang violence that has slowed thanks in part to an influx of cops and dollars.

But there are major concerns that Olympic security will turn the city into a rights-free zone.

In addition, contentious bylaws are being drafted by city council that restrict what kinds of signs are allowed to be posted during the Games and the powers of bylaw officers to remove them.Civil liberties advocates say the bylaws restrict free speech and will give officials power to remove anti-Olympic materials.

"There's a trust issue for sure but based on history people have a right to be concerned and critical," Robertson said.

He said council is working to make the language of the bylaws crystal clear to reflect they are meant to govern commercial signs that could violate the multimillion-dollar rights of Olympic sponsors.

The economic realities of the Games aren't lost on the city.

Its Games budget is $20 million for everything from porta potties to nightly parties.

But the bigger financial pressure comes from the $1 billion Olympic athletes village that the city was required to start paying for after the original lenders wouldn't.

Controversy over the financing and construction of the village are in part what catapulted Robertson and his Vision Vancouver slate into office last November after revelations that the previous council had been secretly covering costs on the project for months.

While he remains confident the project will sell, Robertson said there are other important ways the city can capitalize on the Games.

Vancouver has received a new rapid transit line to the airport and also benefits from the upgrades to the Sea-to-Sky Highway linking it to Whistler, B.C.

A $900-million convention centre was finally built by the province, the curling venue constructed for the Games will become a community centre afterwards and three existing community centres received upgrades from Olympic organizers so they could be used as training venues.

Restaurants and hotels have renovated and the entire downtown city square has been rebuilt for use during the Games.

But it's the people power the mayor hopes to harness.

Robertson said he is hopeful the volunteer culture created by the Games will have as much a lasting effect on the city as the infrastructure built for the Olympics.

"You end up with tens of thousands of people who can work well on a large scale and channelling that back into key priorities for our city is a real opportunity," he said.

"I think we will stir up all of this capacity and we'll need to plug it into real clear objectives after the Games."