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Boston panel hears details on hosting Summer Olympics

“It really opens up a breadth of conversation we haven’t had in the Commonwealth,” Suffolk Construction chief executive John Fish said.

Bill Brett for The Globe

“It really opens up a breadth of conversation we haven’t had in the Commonwealth,” Suffolk Construction chief executive John Fish said.

Gleaming new sports venues. Better public transit. Thousands of smiling volunteers.

This was the picture of a city alive with possibility that a British diplomat presented Tuesday as she described London’s experience hosting the 2012 Olympics to a special commission that is looking at bringing the Summer Games to Boston in 2024.

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But under questioning from a few skeptical commission members, the diplomat, Susie Kitchens, acknowledged that the London Games were not all gilded in gold.

Costs ballooned about 300 percent over initial estimates and the Olympics may not have resulted in a net economic gain for the city, she said.

“I can’t honestly say we’ve made a profit out of the Olympics,” Kitchens said. “But with the economic benefits that we brought into London as a result, we think we have covered the costs.”

With the world’s attention now focused on the Winter Games in Sochi, the commission finds itself in the public eye as it prepares to report by March 1 on the feasibility of bringing the Olympics to Boston, a city that panel members acknowledged can be slow to embrace, if not outright hostile to, sweeping new undertakings.

Though the threat of cost overruns concerned some members of the commission, it did not dampen the enthusiasm of the chairman, Suffolk Construction chief executive John Fish, who said he is bullish about the potential benefits of hosting the Olympics, if Boston is ultimately selected in 2017.

‘It really opens up a breadth of conversation we haven’t had in the Commonwealth.’

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At the commission meeting, Fish mused about using a public-private partnership to build an Olympic village, which he said could then be turned into housing for middle-income workers after the Games end. He also said facilities at the 100 colleges and universities in the area could be upgraded to host athletes and events.

“It really opens up a breadth of conversation we haven’t had in the Commonwealth,” he said.

Fish’s firm could benefit from all the construction projects that would have to be built to host the Olympics. But Fish insisted his role as a construction company executive would not influence his role as panel chairman charged with impartially examining the viability of a Boston Olympics.

“I’m not thinking about what my company is going to be building 10 years from now,” Fish told reporters after the meeting. “I think that doesn’t really hold any type of water at all.”

The 11-member commission was created by the Legislature and includes state lawmakers, the chief executive of Boston Duck Tours, and the Suffolk County sheriff. It has met five times over the last several months, hearing testimony about security concerns, economic benefits, transit needs, and other issues.

On Tuesday, commission members heard a largely upbeat presentation from Barry Nearhos of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the consulting firm that is advising organizers of the Sochi Games and that worked with the planners of the London Olympics.

Nearhos, speaking about the new airport and high-speed rail line built for the Games in Sochi, told the panel that not all the costs for the projects were borne by the Russian public. For example, a private company built one of the ski venues in Sochi, he said, and will operate it as a private resort after the Games.

Fish said that despite reports of dilapidated hotel rooms and crackdowns on protesters, he has been encouraged by what he has heard of the experience in Sochi. Fish said he has not sent any representatives to Russia, but has been in contact with US Olympic Committee officials there.

“If you put politics aside, I think Russia has done a very commendable job organizing the Olympics and managing the process to date,” he said. “I realize everything to date has not gone perfectly but, not being there myself, it’s very hard to ascertain what’s real, and what’s fiction.”

Fish has enlisted the help of Northwind Strategies, the politically connected consulting firm whose clients have also included Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Governor Deval Patrick, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and the gubernatorial campaign of Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Costs overruns were clearly an issue for some on the panel. Pressed by a Republican appointee, Jonah Beckley, to discuss budget problems at past Olympics, Nearhos said forecasting costs is difficult because cities bid on Games years before they are held.

“It is so far in the future to really project what costs would be 12 years out,” he said. “We struggle with what costs would be next year.”

Taxpayers or private companies can be held responsible for overruns, depending on the structure of the bid, he said.

London’s successes were spotlighted in a glossy promotional video that the commission members watched that featured triumphant athletes and proud city leaders, and highlighted the thousands of jobs created and parks and transit lines upgraded for the Games.

Kitchens, who is Britain’s consul general in Boston, said the London Olympics created 30,000 jobs and attracted 70,000 volunteers who received only a T-shirt and a public transit ticket for their work. “They were the smiling face of London,” she said, “and that’s hard for Londoners sometimes.”

And, after the budget was revised upward by 300 percent, “we stuck to it,” she said.

Fish cautioned those who may be skeptical about bringing the Olympics to Boston that his panel is only exploring the idea, which would take years to develop.

The United States Olympic Committee has indicated it plans to narrow the list of American cities by the end of the year and then select a nominee sometime after that. The International Olympic Committee has said it plans to announce the winning city in 2017.

“This is like eating an elephant,” Fish said. “You have to break it down into little pieces and digest it.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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