On February 12, after two years of planning and about $50 million raised, Mayor Daley and his Olympic committee turned in their official bid for the 2016 games. And what exactly does it reveal? Well, not much—except that the mayor and his planners still haven’t come clean about what residents actually stand to gain and lose from this risky venture.
With its 300-plus pages of bright pictures and cheery quotes, the bid paints a picture of a city free from potholes, budget deficits, CTA meltdowns, murders, school cuts, and politicians on the take—a town of happy folk who adore their mayor and yearn to host the games. “The athletes’ presence at the heart of the Games will inspire us all,” the bid reads. “We will feel their spirit. We will share their dreams. We will celebrate their achievements.”
Look—I know the whole point is to spin the International Olympic Committee. But people, we live here! We shouldn’t be falling for this crap.
Let’s start with the central assertion—made several times in the bid—that Chicagoans universally want these games. “Chicago’s bid for the [Olympics has] unified our city around a common cause,” it says. But a Tribune poll February 8 showed at best conditional support: 64 percent of respondents said they want the games, but 75 percent said they were opposed to using public money to cover the tab.
Well, by my count we’re already on the hook for at least a few hundred million. In 2007 the City Council, at Daley’s urging, committed $500 million as insurance to cover any Olympics cost overruns. Last December the council agreed to borrow $86 million to buy and knock down Michael Reese Hospital so it can be turned into a 7,500-unit Olympic Village. Then it agreed to turn over unspecified millions of dollars in tax increment financing funds—property tax revenues by another name—to cover sewers and other infrastructure enhancements at the Reese site. And the city still hasn’t determined who will pay the $1 billion it will cost to actually build the village.
The mayor contends that we’ll never have to dig into that $500 million because the games will pay for themselves through ticket sales, merchandise, naming rights, and broadcast rights. He also says we won’t have to find the $1 billion to build the Olympic Village because some developer will pick up the bill in exchange for the right to sell or rent the units after the games.
As my editors always say, let’s be fair. We can’t say with absolute certainty that it won’t happen the way the mayor says. I mean, the city might suddenly discover the ability to build things on time and on budget, as opposed to the way it built, say, Millennium Park or Block 37.
But based on the existing evidence I think a little skepticism is warranted: if there are cost overruns, or if no developer steps forward with $1 billion to pour into a speculative housing deal in the middle of the greatest housing crash since the Great Depression, then guess what, Chicago? You’ll be covering the balance. Money that could go to schools, parks, police, and firefighters will be diverted to the Olympic effort—including the $10.5 million the bid says will spent coming up with a mascot.
Plus, Daley is expecting residents to give up something at least as precious as public money: public space. Only he’s not being up front about it—he’s pretending that we don’t have to be inconvenienced at all. “Chicago 2016 selected its venues and developed its plans to take full advantage of existing infrastructure,” the bid tells us. “This approach will reduce costs, minimize construction and environmental impact, increase operational efficiency, and promote sustainability.”
Really? It’s not like Daley’s going to throw this party on the site of an abandoned steel mill or something (even though I’m pretty sure we have such properties available). He’s putting it in the parks. And the last I looked everyone from dog owners to Little Leaguers was clamoring for more, not less, park space.
The main stadium and the aquatics center would gobble up an unspecified portion of Washington Park, which thousands of residents now use for softball, baseball, Frisbee football, cricket, tennis, basketball, and fishing. A yet-to-be-identified chunk of Douglas Park would be plowed over to build two cycling tracks; Lincoln Park would get a 19,500-seat tennis complex on parkland near the Waveland Avenue bird sanctuary, and a 15,000-seat field hockey facility would go near the nature preserves in Jackson Park.
“The plan’s new venues will provide long-term benefits to the city and form the foundation for legacy sports programs,” the bid promises. But according to the bid many of the venues, like the field hockey and tennis arenas, are supposed to be temporary and will be removed once the games are over—not that the bid gives any specifics about how and when. At public meetings, city officials have tried to assure residents that construction won’t begin until maybe a year before the games. But think about it: the city will be under immense international pressure to build these venues as soon as they win the bid. And then it won’t be under much at all to clear them away once the games are over.
And what are these “long-term benefits” we’d get from the facilities that are supposed to stick around? The aquatics center in Washington Park would be built without walls, so it’d be useless in winter. Lincoln Park already has tennis courts, and besides, what the cash-strapped Park District needs more than courts is the money to pay instructors to teach kids how to play tennis. The Jackson Park hockey arena would be turned into soccer fields—but must we stage the Olympics to get a couple soccer fields eight or nine years from now?
The bid broadly promises to use the Olympics to “bring urban youth back to sport across the United States.” But it makes no specific suggestions as to how, and so far the committee’s efforts have been dismal. Two years ago, when talk of the Olympics first started, many public school coaches hoped the city would kick in money to improve facilities in the parks and schools, if only for the good PR. But though he’s raised some $50 million in corporate donations to prepare the bid, Daley hasn’t set aside a cent for new baseball batting cages or swimming coaches or archery programs. The Park District can’t meet the growing demand for soccer fields. There’s only one public indoor ice skating rink in the city. And I’ll say it again—we still have not a single public indoor running track. It’s hard to imagine the 2016 bid introducing kids across the country to “sport” when it’s shown so little interest in what’s available for kids within a couple miles of its offices.
In fact, the bid is based on the premise that it can take facilities away from Chicago youth as it needs to. It notes that the Park District, school system, “and other public authorities have provided guarantees allowing the use of the public parks, Soldier Field, schools, and other non-commercial facilities as competition and non-competition venues for the games at no rental costs” to the Olympics.
At the January 28 Park District board meeting, the commissioners went even further, unanimously adopting new leasing rules that give superintendent Tim Mitchell a free hand to let the Olympics use any of the parks without board approval or public hearings. This will let Mitchell and the bid committee shift venues and construction schedules without notifying the public.
Still, not everything in the bid document is off the mark. Chicago, it notes, has “a strong and coordinated political structure.” I’ll say—so much so that no political or business leaders have uttered a peep about the many inconsistent and troubling parts of this bid. The civic community, the City Council, Governor Pat Quinn, Senator Richard Durbin, the General Assembly, even President Obama—all of them either believe what the mayor says about cost and risks or they’re too chicken to speak up. Frankly, I’m not sure which would be worse.v
Ben Joravsky discusses his weekly column with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks. And for even more Joravsky, see our blog Clout City.