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The Boston Globe

Business

Shirley Leung

Olympic-size ambitions, hurdles for Boston

Let’s talk about the Olympic-size elephant in the room.

John Fish, who runs Suffolk Construction Co., is not so quietly leading the charge to explore whether it makes sense to bring the 2024 Summer Olympics to Boston.

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Fish and other powerful types, like Mitt Romney and Bob Kraft, consider it an opportunity to put sports-obsessed Boston on a world stage. Pulling it off would be an enormous undertaking requiring billions of dollars to construct everything from a showcase venue for opening and closing ceremonies to an aquatics center and an Olympic village to house 16,000 athletes. And then there’s the massive upgrade of our creaking public transportation system.

Who in the private sector stands to benefit most from all this work? Construction companies, of course, and there would be no bigger winner than Fish himself.

“I can’t argue they are wrong because we are a construction company,” he said wryly, anticipating the question on everyone’s mind.

Fish sits on a $2 billion empire and has made a fortune building and rebuilding half the town — his portfolio boasts the Boston Opera House, Mandarin Oriental, Millennium Place (a.k.a. Filene’s), and One Channel Center. He has also been civic-minded, serving on nonprofit boards and pledging $5 million to help thousands of student-athletes. That’s one of the reasons why Mayor Tom Menino treats him like a favorite son.

But cynics wonder if this is Fish just watching out for Fish now that Menino is on his way out. The construction king needs to find another way for his enormous loaf of bread to get buttered, and a Boston Olympics would certainly bring home the gold for Suffolk.

Fish isn’t the only one with a vested interest. Kraft could get the soccer stadium he’s wanted, and Romney could find redemption by replaying Olympic glory in his home state.

For his part, Fish insists his motivation is not money — and I believe him. With or without the Olympics, he is going to make more money then he can ever spend. At 53 years old, he says, it’s time to start thinking about his legacy. He loves this city, sees potential greatness, and wants the rest of the world — along with local doubters — to realize how magnificent it can be.

“It’s an opportunity to have an impact on the city of Boston for decades to come,” said Fish, who brims with optimism.

When you hear Fish talk about how hosting the Games could create a better Boston — public transit that works, more workforce housing, new hotels, paid for by the private sector and sponsorships — you want to jump on board and run the damn Olympic torch down Boylston Street yourself.

But then reality sets in. Boston can barely handle rush-hour traffic. The three snowflakes that fell Tuesday added half an hour to our morning commutes. And we can’t seem to build anything on time or on budget. Two words to jog your memory: Big Dig.

“I say this respectfully,” Fish said of the Big Dig nightmare. It “was a public-led initiative, where I see this as being more of a public-private led initiative. You have many more stakeholders that have accountability.”

Fish acknowledges there’s a huge eye-roll factor in all of this. The naysayers will be loud — I can already hear them cursing from stalled cars inside the O’Neill Tunnel — but great cities have aspirations and anything bold is never easy. Yeah, the Big Dig was delivered a decade late, and costs ballooned from $2 billion to $22 billion, of which the state and Mass. Pike toll payers were on the hook for $18 billion. But scrapping the Central Artery transformed Boston, giving us two new tunnels, the Zakim Bridge, and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

“The city has to get out of its comfort zone to have this conversation,” said Fish. “No is when the conversation begins, not where it ends.”

Competition to host the 2024 Summer Olympics will be fierce. (Watch out for Paris.) Fish wants to spend the coming months looking at potential venues and gauging interest from city and state leaders, universities, and private businesses.

No doubt, Boston should think big. We are a city at a crossroads, having just elected the first new mayor in a generation. But the campaign also made clear our priorities — better schools, a less-convoluted development process, improved public transit, more housing, and a narrowed gap between the rich and poor. Some of those goals overlap nicely with the Games; others do not.

A bid will be all-consuming. The question now is: What are we willing to sacrifice for an Olympic dream?

Shirley Leung can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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