Let’s be clear about one thing when it comes to hosting
the Olympics: It’s going to require public help.
The question we should be asking now is: How much?
There has been a lot of confusion — blame the organizers of Boston 2024 — about what kind of government assistance the Olympics will need. Organizers are so scared to talk about taxpayer money they’ve been dancing around the issue like a rhythmic gymnast.
The Boston bid has been pitched as a privately funded event.
That means no taxpayer dollars to build sports venues or to operate the Games. Local public aid would be used for infrastructure improvements, such as better roads. (The federal government would almost certainly pick up the estimated $1 billion to cover security costs.)
But bid documents released last week set off a firestorm of criticism, not so much because Boston 2024 wanted to use public financing to prepare the area for an Olympic stadium, but because that part of the bid had been redacted from the group’s original public documents.
Organizers shouldn’t be so squeamish about getting help. If hosting the Games will be a catalyst for development that otherwise might never happen, then the city or state should want to help.
Ambitious proposals from the private sector — whether at Assembly Square or Fan Pier — often get tax breaks or benefit from other public programs. Government kicks in because these projects are investments in the region.
State and federal officials, for example, put in about $130 million to build roads, utilities, and an MBTA Orange Line station for Assembly Square. That unlocked more than $1 billion from the private sector to transform a dormant industrial area in Somerville into one of the region’s hottest live-work-play developments.
Boston 2024 hopes the Olympics could lead to redevelopment of Widett Circle, a swath of industrial land stuck between the South End and South Boston. That’s where organizers are proposing to build the temporary Olympic stadium — and where they are likely to seek the most government incentives, because that site has the biggest potential for post-Olympic use.
The other major venue that Boston 2024 could seek help for is the athletes’ village. The roads leading to the proposed site, near the University of Massachusetts Boston, would need to be redone to handle the increased traffic.
Greg Sullivan, research director at the Pioneer Institute, estimates that hosting the Games could unlock about $3.6 billion in real estate value around Widett Circle. Low-slung buildings for food distributors currently dot the 81-acre area, which is not well connected to the rest of the city.
If Widett Circle can get an MBTA stop and be developed after the Games end with high-density housing, offices, and retail space, even Sullivan, a fiscal watchdog whose career includes a stint as the Massachusetts inspector general, thinks it could be government money wisely spent.
But to get to that point, Sullivan needs more information, not only about the Olympic plans for Widett Circle, but about what could happen to the property long after the athletes go home. The eventual developer would reap a windfall just from officials rezoning the area and knitting together parcels from various owners.
“Let’s see the financial spreadsheets to forecast expenses and revenues for this project. Whoever ends up owning this will make a lot of money,” Sullivan said. “Maybe they should be paying taxes. Let’s see the numbers.”
I reached out to Boston 2024 chief executive Rich Davey on Tuesday to see if he would cough up some numbers.
Not now, Davey said.
But the public will see the financing plan for Widett Circle and the scope of infrastructure costs when Boston 2024 updates its Olympic plan by the end of the month.
Davey said organizers are looking at public financing to pay for infrastructure upgrades and a tax-relief plan. Public financing would involve the city or state taking out bonds, with payments funded by real estate taxes from the later development. Tax relief would come in the form of deferring real estate taxes for a period of time.
“All options have to be on the table,” Davey said, adding that the group is in the process of narrowing its plans down to one proposal for Widett Circle.
But Davey also wanted to be clear about what Boston 2024 is not considering.
“We are not asking the taxpayer for a check,” he said. “We have not, and we will not.”
Call it what you will, but preparing Widett Circle for the Olympics and its post-Games life will require the government to cut deals with the private sector.
But the only way to know if it’s good for the public is if we know a lot more than what Boston 2024 has been telling us.