An elite group including some of the area’s most powerful business leaders, developers, and construction experts is quietly exploring the prospect of bringing the 2024 Summer Olympic Games to Boston.
Though in its earliest stages, the volunteer effort, led by John F. Fish, chairman of Suffolk Construction, hosted a delegation of the United States Olympic Committee, which visited for two days in October. The delegation met with group members and viewed potential Olympic sites around Boston.
The group also has recruited former governor Mitt Romney, who ran the 2002 Salt Lake City winter Games, as a key adviser.
“Boston would be a fantastic place for the summer Games,” Romney said in a phone interview Saturday. “It would be a marvelous community-building experience for Boston, and I think the people who would enjoy the games with or without tickets would say it was one of the best experiences of their life.”
An Olympic bid remains highly speculative, and group members say enormous challenges would have to be met before the USA basketball team could dunk for gold in the TD Garden, or “The Star-Spangled Banner” could play for an equestrian champion in, say, Franklin Park.
“It’s a huge-impact event,” said Romney. “It’s like 20 Super Bowls all at once. The transportation has to be completely redone. The fund-raising and marketing of the Games is extensive. It’s an amazing undertaking.”
Though Boston is packed with athletic venues that could potentially host events, the city lacks several major components necessary to host a Summer Olympics. Transportation between venues in a cramped city with an aging subway system would also have to be closely examined. And supporters would have to galvanize political and community support for hosting the Games and show that potentially expensive facilities could be beneficial to the city long after the Olympic torch is put out.
“It has to be done thoughtfully,” said Fish. “It has to be based on analytics. It has to be slow and deliberate. It has to be done with consensus. And we need to sit at the table and have this discussion constructively — or we’ll never know.”
The fledgling effort to bring the Olympics to Boston was kept out of the public eye for two months as members explored the feasibility of an Olympic bid. In that time, it attracted supporters and advisers including Bob Reynolds, president and chief executive of Putnam Investments, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, former Massachusetts transportation secretary Jeff Mullan, outgoing Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis, and former state economic development secretary Daniel O’Connell, who is now president and CEO of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a nonprofit public policy group made up of chief executives from some of the state’s largest corporations.
Davis, who gained a national profile after the Boston Marathon bombing in April, said he was personally recruited by Fish to advise the group on security issues. “I was struck by his commitment to it and by the people involved in it,” said Davis. “These are very substantial people in the community that don’t enter lightly into something this serious. The potential for economic development and infrastructure improvements is huge, but I really think it’s nice to have an exciting plan, an exciting proposal out there. My attitude is, why not Boston?”
Romney said the Games could be financed, in part, by television broadcast revenue, corporate sponsorships, and ticket sales. The federal government has traditionally covered security and some transportation costs.
“If you’re successful in your sponsorship effort, then your share of the broadcast revenue, your share of the top sponsors, and your own sponsors you’ve gathered should be enough to pay for your Olympics, plus ticket sales on top of that,” Romney said.
However, if funding falls short, city and state taxpayers could be on the hook to make up the difference. “Someone has got to be able to write the check,” Romney said. “So it represents a degree of commitment.”
Boston would need at least three new major structures, in or around the city, to meet the minimum specifications to host an Olympics, including a stadium that would host the opening and closing ceremonies as well as track and field events. The local group does not believe Gillette Stadium in Foxborough could work as the primary venue, though Olympic soccer could be held there.
The Games also require a modern aquatic center to cheer on the Michael Phelps of 2024.
And the Games require construction of an Olympic village to house roughly 15,000 athletes and coaches for the three weeks they would be in Boston. Existing housing, like college dormitories, is not typically considered adequate, in part because Olympic athletes have been targets of terrorists and security is a top design consideration.
Boston architects, engineers, and planners recruited by the local Olympic group are undertaking a broad survey of potential sites for the new developments, trying to answer basic questions, Fish said.
“Are there particular pieces of land that may be available to allow us to achieve the different venues required to host the Olympics, and will those venues be appropriate for further use?” said Fish. “Do they tie into some of the existing master plans for our universities and other institutions? What are the options available to connect that real estate?”
Reynolds, of Putnam, is optimistic sites will be available. “There’s more land around Boston than you think,” he said. “And we have lots of runway before 2024 — a lot of time to put something together.”
Critical to any plan would be what happens to the new structures after the Olympics.
There is probably no need for an 80,000-seat stadium in Massachusetts once the Games are done, members of the group acknowledge. But new construction techniques could allow a stadium to be built in sections, said Fish, some of which could be removed after the Olympics to leave a modestly-sized stadium with a capacity of perhaps 25,000 or 30,000. That would be roughly the scope of a facility Kraft is interested in building for his professional soccer team, the New England Revolution.
“Just looking at it from our point of view, we’re probably going to seriously consider a downtown soccer stadium somewhere in Boston or the Greater Boston area,” Kraft said in an interview. “We would try to help tailor something that could serve the needs of the Olympics and also our soccer team.”
The group will explore whether any local colleges and universities would help finance the building of an aquatic center, which could later be scaled down to a smaller campus venue. And the group is studying the future housing needs of the city, and whether an Olympic village could be designed to help meet them.
Detractors argue that hosting an Olympics is, at best, a mixed-bag for local economies. Hotels and restaurants, for instance, typically do very well, but other businesses can be disrupted by the temporary surge of tourism and the need for security.
“Overall, the gains in the hospitality industry are lower than the losses experienced by other sectors in the economy,” concluded a 2008 analysis of the Salt Lake Games issued by the economics department of the College of the Holy Cross. “Given the experience of Utah, potential Olympic hosts should exercise caution before proceeding down the slippery slope of bidding for this event.”
For Romney, turning a profit is the wrong measure of an Olympics.
“I’m sure some cities have benefited long-term from hosting the Olympic Games, but I don’t think that is the primary reason for doing so,” said Romney. “Hosting the Olympics is about serving the world and providing service to athletes and people from almost every country. If it’s seen as a chance for Boston to serve as America’s host to the world, that can be a fantastic experience.”