By  on May 5, 2008

The site of the 2006 Winter Olympics is enjoying a commercial and cultural revival.

TURIN, Italy — Two years after the Winter Olympics turned the world's spotlight on Turin, the city has blown off its dusty industrial image to reveal a commercial and cultural crossroads in bloom.

And retailers have been among the beneficiaries of the reinvention.

Among the long-standing Turin-based stores helped by the city's overhaul is San Carlo, the multibrand luxury boutique that opened in 1973 and sells Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Marc Jacobs, Prada and Tod's, among other designer labels. It had a 50 percent spike in sales during the Olympics, and estimates a 10 percent increase in sales in 2008.

"We were considered basically an industrial center with a great past thanks to carmaker Fiat, but no one knew that we were a treasure of arts, culture and design," said Georgina Seviero, San Carlo's founder.

Turin, like many other Italian cities, rested on its centuries-old laurels before the Olympics. Aside from being Italy's first state capital in the late 1800s, Turin was home to the palaces of the Italian royal family Savoia, and in the 20th century, the birthplace of Fiat. And, with a population of 950,000, it is the third biggest city in Italy after Rome and Milan.

The Winter Games jump-started Turin's commercial engine and, by 2006, the number of hotel beds increased to 12,000 from 7,000, and new bars and restaurants opened.

Shop owners got in on the act, sprucing up stores and trying to appeal to a broader range of customers by hiring multilingual sales assistants.

"Residents starting changing their behavior and mentality," said Luca Ballarini, creative director of Bellissimo, a graphic design, advertising and communications agency. "Snobby shop proprietors had to become more down-to-earth and greet people in English. It was a new thing for them."

Many traditional retailers had relied solely on communicating through their store windows to overcome language barriers.

"Shop owners became more aware of the art of display in their windows, and that understanding has further developed even after the Olympics finished," said Gregorio Marsiaj, founder of Turin-based footwear firm Sabelt and one of 70 Olympics "ambassadors" given the task of promoting the city during the games. "The stores and streets have a chicer, more elegant gloss."Meanwhile, a colossal urban rejuvenation initiative had begun. "The Olympics crossed over a grand project of change and renovation for Turin, which pushed it along, bringing with it new commercial opportunities," said Anna Martina, director of communication and tourist promotion for the Municipality of Turin.

Over the past 10 years the city has created infrastructure such as a much-needed subway system and underground parking to help alleviate traffic. It has also restored some key historical areas.

The centrally located Quadrilatero Romano, a former Roman campsite, was pivotal to Turin's facelift. Once a haven for drug dealers and addicts, Quadrilatero Romano is now a thriving network of streets filled with a mix of vintage stores, restaurants, design agencies and a four-star hotel. Anchoring the area is the city's most famous cafe, Al Bicerin, which opened in 1763. Al Bicerin invented bicerin, a coffee with a base of hazelnut chocolate and topped with cream, which is now served at many other bars in the city.

"Now the area is full of [restaurants and bars], which spill out into the streets," Martina said. "It's a social meeting place for residents and tourists alike."

The Municipality of Turin also restored Europe's biggest piazza, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, from a parking lot into an elegant paved square lined with cafes and trees.

"The piazza was ugly but the transformation has totally turned it around," Marsiaj said. "It really offers one of the prettiest views of Turin, the river Po in the foreground, behind it green hills."

The improvements have attracted independent niche stores. Recent openings include high-end English paint and wallpaper specialists Farrow & Ball, chocolate-maker Guido Gobino and a shop dedicated to Champagne.

A spokesman from Tecnocasa, a real estate agency in the center of the city, said while housing prices in Turin have slightly fallen this year, commercial space prices have increased 10 percent annually for the past three years, costing 3,000 to 5,000 euros a square meter, or $4,635 to $7,727 at current exchange.

Aside from giving Turin's commercial district a shot in the arm, the Olympics reawakened the city's cultural heritage.This year the city carries the title of World Design Capital. Artists Michelangelo Pistoletto, Giovanni Anselmo and Mario and Marisa Merz lived and worked in Turin in the 20th century, and the city gave rise to Italian cinema. Turin also is the home of one of the world's most important museums housing Egyptian antiquities, Museo Egizio, and boasts art galleries and a film museum.

As a result of the Olympics, Turin's residents began to feel passionate about their city. Cristiana Tardino, the designer behind label Kristina Ti, carried the Olympic torch as part of the opening ceremony. "The character of people from this region is low profile," she said. "We never thought we could pull off something so great as the Olympics. Most of my friends left town when the games were on, complaining about the tourists and the traffic, but those who stayed were astonished, we really were so proud. It's like now we are going about our lives with a new energy."

The Olympics also attracted a new wave of tourists. According to Turismo Torino, in 2006 around 5.1 million people visited the city, 36 percent of them foreign. Though last year's figures weren't available, Patrick Hoffnug, director of Turismo Torino, said the city managed to retain the high visitor numbers. "The type of tourist who visits the city has changed, they aren't here to eat and retire to their hotel rooms," he said.

Licia Mattioli, a jewelry designer and another Turin Olympic ambassador said, "The city is undergoing a tourist reawakening, it's not been like this in 50 years. The Olympics whipped it into shape and in these past two years we are trying to keep those changes going."

Many said changes began when Fiat, the economic engine of the region, fell into crisis in the Nineties.

"Turin was inexorably linked to Fiat, and the commercial activity here followed the rhythm and time of its workers, which meant complete closure on Sundays," said Maria Luisa Coppa, president of ASCOM, the Retailers Association of Turin and its provinces.

The Fiat crisis evolved the city's workforce from being solely directed to the car industry. "It gave a new generation — my generation — freedom to pursue other careers, to open their own businesses, and they are forming a creative hotbed for the city," Marsiaj said.Much of that new commercial activity is expected to move into the south side of the city, home to a new contemporary art scene of museums, private galleries and design shops. The area will also be pinpointed with a skyscraper designed by Renzo Piano and a new central train station, expected to open in 2011.

By the banks of the Po, plans are under way to develop the Murazzi — once the city's loading docks but now home to late-night locales such as discos and nightclubs. Over the next few years the Municipality of Turin intends to clean up and improve the safety of the area, and will rent spaces out to independent retailers and new restaurants. "We really envision that area taking off and we'll be promoting it heavily," Coppa said.

The banks and connecting areas of the city's other river, the Dora, populated mostly by older residents and known for its antique stores, is also undergoing a transformation after an influx of young couples buying competitively priced homes and work studios there.

"It's mostly residential because it is so beautiful with the rolling green banks, but there's a lot of creative studios springing up there, so retail activity is sure to follow," said Bellissimo's Ballarini.

"You can't live on Baroque forever," he said, referring to the style of some of the city's architecture. "What the city is doing now in art, design, fashion and food will be relevant to people who live here in 20 years time."

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