Dear Members of the International Olympic
It’s been almost six months since I last wrote to encourage you not to award Chicago the 2016 games. Back then, as you recall, I was welcoming some of you to town for your official visit. Now, of course, you’re in Copenhagen, preparing to announce on October 2 which city they’ll be held in—Chicago, Madrid, Tokyo, or Rio.
I don’t want Chicago to “win” for the reasons I mentioned last time: we can’t afford the games, and they’ll tear up our parks. But let’s talk about your needs. I urge you, for your own sake: spare yourself the cost overruns, backroom deals, political wrangling, embarrassing scandals, and ugly headlines a Chicago Olympics would almost certainly bring you.
Let me explain.
For starters, no one around here really wants them.
OK, that’s not completely true. Obviously, Mayor Daley wants them, and his opinion counts far more than most.
But on this issue, at least, he doesn’t represent the city well. According to the most recent poll, conducted in late August for the Chicago Tribune, 45 percent of Chicagoans are explicitly against bringing the games here, and 84 percent are effectively against them because they’re opposed to using any taxpayer money to fund them. As you probably know, having scrutinized the books, taxpayers will almost certainly have to cover at least some of the costs. Mayor Daley says it will cost $3.3 billion to stage the games and he’ll raise $3.8 billion from private donors, leaving a $500 million pot from which to build parks and field houses in low-income neighborhoods.
But what you might not know is that the city hasn’t completed a major construction project on time or on budget in recent memory. Pick a project, any project: the reconstruction of Soldier Field, the creation of Millennium Park, the redevelopment of the prime downtown land at Block 37, the expansion of O’Hare airport—they were all finished way over budget if they were finished at all. In Chicago, people know that the question isn’t whether city projects will go over budget, but by how much.
Faith in the predictions that the games would be an economic boon for Chicago is exactly that: faith. Science doesn’t support them. As my colleague Deanna Isaacs wrote a couple of weeks ago, studies have found that the games have a marginal impact on the local economy—one study, produced by the European Tour Operators Association, even concluded that “there appears to be little evidence of any benefit to tourism of hosting an Olympic Games, and considerable evidence of damage.” Just last week the Anderson Economic Group, an independent research and consulting firm, released a report designed to let area businesses know more about the probable impact of hosting the 2016 Olympics. They concluded that the games could yield $4.4 billion in economic benefits—a not insubstantial sum, but less than a quarter of the $22 billion the mayor’s office and the Chicago 2016 bid committee have been trumpeting.
You may recall that the mayor initially vowed that the games wouldn’t cost Chicagoans one dime in public money. Yet we’ve already committed half a billion bucks (and that doesn’t include $250 million put up by the state, which is also strapped for cash). It’s not the same deal with Tokyo, Madrid, and Rio, whose national governments have promised to pay their Olympic bills. The residents of Chicago are being asked to pretty much shoulder this sucker on their own.
Why should you care about any of this? Because we’re broke, and with all our other pressing needs there’s bound to be political blowback if we spend money on a three-week-long international party.
I know, I told you about our financial troubles last time. But guess what: they’ve gotten worse. Back then the city was estimating it was about $200 million in the red. In the ensuing months, Mayor Daley laid off workers, forced employees to take unpaid furloughs, and even closed City Hall for a day in August. Yet the deficit still grew—it’s now expected to be more than $500 million for the coming year. In addition, the Chicago Public Schools is facing its own deficit of $475 million as school officials talk about raising property taxes and cutting staff and programs.
The mayor’s in a bit of a bind. He can close the budget gap with another tax hike and another round of service cuts, or he can do what he’s done the past few years: make unrealistically rosy projections of how much revenue the city expects to collect in the coming months. Of course, if he chooses plan B—the politically safe option—the city will make plans to spend more than it can really afford and we’ll end up with an even a greater budget deficit just a few months from now.
In either case, the decision won’t come until after you make your October 2 announcement.
Think of it this way: If you were to give Chicago the Olympics, the city would have to spend money to build athletic facilities, housing, and other infrastructure for the games even as Mayor Daley raises taxes, lays off teachers, and cuts the services that supposedly make this city “work.”
What would be the consequences for your games? That’s the multi-billion-dollar question you have to ponder. On the one hand, Chicagoans have been very tolerant of Mayor Daley, despite years of scandal and corruption. He’s been reelected five times since 1989 with no less than 60 percent of the vote.
On the other hand, these are unusually volatile times. Recent public opinion polls in the Trib found that the percentage of Chicagoans who view Daley favorably has slipped to 35, an all-time low. The public is still grumbling about the parking meter debacle, in which City Hall, with virtually no oversight or expert analysis, leased the city’s meter system to a consortium of investors for 75 years, apparently for far less than it was worth. The process was engineered by a battery of well-connected law firms and investment bankers who’ve donated thousands of dollars to the mayor’s political—and Olympic—coffers. Daley swore that the new operators would run the meters far more efficiently than the city had, but they’ve had all kinds of problems in the months since they took over. Even as the rates quadrupled, meters broke down, motorists got tickets, angry consumers sabotaged the meters, and aldermen and the state attorney general launched investigations.
If you want to know why the public is having a hard time buying anything the mayor’s selling these days—and why you too should be wary of his promises—you ought to read the Reader‘s coverage of how the meter deal went down.
Give us the games and you run the risk of replacing the parking meter operators as everybody’s favorite whipping boys—the most convenient scapegoat for all the service cuts and tax hikes people will be facing.
And don’t forget: this isn’t China, where the central government controls the press. There are still reporters around town who delight in exposing the murky details of inside deals, cost overruns, project delays, investigations, and—when they happen, and they do happen—federal indictments and convictions. Already the city’s Olympic bid has begun to give off the scent of scandal. Just last week the Trib broke the news that Michael Scott—a powerful Daley ally and member of the Chicago 2016 bid committee—has worked as a consultant for one of the firms hoping to develop Chicago’s $1.2 billion Olympic Village.
Earlier stories reported that Scott, who’s also head of the Chicago school board, was part of a group of west-siders hatching plans to develop city-owned land near Douglas Park, the planned site of the planned Olympic velodrome. If the Olympics come to Chicago, these properties would soar in value. Scott, though, said he wasn’t in it for himself—he was just providing pro bono advice to a group of ministers working on the project.
Just in case Mayor Daley didn’t include any of these articles in your press packet, let me quote a choice sample of the Trib‘s latest: “Scott’s multiple roles as a private developer, mayoral confidant and member of the city’s Olympic committee raises anew concerns about insider dealings in a city where Daley allies have long benefited from civic projects the mayor champions. City Hall insiders for years have profited under Daley’s administration in myriad deals, from minority contracting to leasing trucks to scooping up prime city-owned land.”
Ouch. And you haven’t even awarded us the games yet.
Of course, you will undoubtedly hear a different story from the dignitaries Mayor Daley brings to Copenhagen. Everyone from Oprah to President Obama will be telling you it’s all hunky-dory in Chicago. Don’t believe them. I doubt they believe it themselves.
I guess our corporate and civic bigwigs have decided it’s in their best interest to go along to get along. This is very much a one-man town—Mayor Daley calls the shots. Most players here know that if they want anything they have to go through him. As several told me on the condition that I not use their names (they’re not eager to face the mayor’s wrath for talking), they see their Olympic support as either payback for things they got in the past or a down payment on things they hope to get in the future. Many of the most generous contributors to the Olympic cause are either city contractors or leaders of institutions who count on city funding to operate.
As for President Obama, he doesn’t live here anymore, so he won’t be around to take the hit when the locals get fed up. Plus, the largely African-American south- and west-siders who are likely to pay the most for the games—through the loss of parks or rising property taxes—are likely to remain loyal to him regardless. I guess he figures he’s got nothing to lose.
You’ve probably heard that our City Council voted unanimously to back Chicago’s Olympics bid. That’s not as it seems either. I’ve talked to quite a few of them over the last few weeks, and they’ve told me they felt they had no choice. Aldermen Robert Fioretti, Scott Waguespack, and Joe Moore, for starters, have all told me the mayor made it clear he would never forgive or forget anyone who came out against the games. He wanted an unblemished vote, and he got it.
Still, many of the aldermen realize that the Olympics will be a hot political issue in this town for years to come—particularly if they have to continue to hike taxes and cut services at the same time we’re all reading articles about Olympic overruns and inside deals.
“There’s no point in voting no—it only pisses off the mayor and I don’t need that,” I was told by one alderman who didn’t want his name used in print.
Besides, he added, “We’re not getting the games—Rio’s getting them. You heard it here first.”
And if you’re wrong? I asked him.