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Mayor likes idea of Olympics, but worries about cost to city

By Adrian Walker

Globe Columnist

If I were one of the downtown power brokers pushing Boston’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, I might be a little worried about Mayor Marty Walsh.

In an interview last week, Walsh seemed interested but wary, curious but not fully invested. He believes that the process of seeking the Games could benefit the city, but at the same time, he is deeply concerned about the financial guarantees the city might have to make in the process.

"I'm not going to be putting billions of dollars in it," Walsh said. "The city doesn't have it, number one. I think there's going to have to be a true [public-]private partnership."

By that he means that the private sector is going to step up and provide big bucks to make the Olympics bid work. The mayor has other spending priorities: "I want to build new schools, and I want to do a lot of other things."


The Olympic bid was hatched in the waning days of the Menino administration. It's been spearheaded by a committee of the former mayor's inner circle, most notably John Fish, Suffolk Construction Co.'s chief executive. Walsh, who now inherits the proposal, said he has met with that committee only once, in a session that didn't offer many details about what it will take for Boston to compete. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., are the other US cities in the running.

Walsh said he is in the process of appointing a group of aides to get a better handle on what the city's role and responsibilities would be. "I think at the end of the day if we get it, and we get to the final [international competition] it puts us on a world stage," Walsh mused. "We're already there, but it puts us on a world stage in a way that there's going to be a transformation."

Walsh said he thinks a serious Olympics bid, even if unsuccessful, could bring huge benefits, by forcing the city to think through its long-term transportation and infrastructure needs.


"I think the short-term benefit is to come up with a really good planning process for the city to see what we want Boston to look like," he said.

Walsh believes that Boston's international character makes it attractive to the US Olympic Committee. He points to the 70 languages spoken in the Boston public schools as an example of the city's cosmopolitan feel. And he noted that Chicago's tourism industry got a boost just by being in the running for the 2016 Summer Games games that were awarded to Rio de Janeiro.

"I wouldn't turn that away," he said.

Walsh's position is crucial, obviously, because Boston's bid can't succeed without the full-throated support of the mayor. The city, as a whole, has to be behind it.

Which makes life complicated for Walsh. In some ways, this is the sort of project that would excite Menino much more than it would Walsh. At his core, he's much more concerned with building affordable housing than building an Olympic Village, even if he isn't quite ready to come out and say so.

One thing Walsh — and others — believe is that it is time for the Olympic boosters to begin to build a wider circle of support. The perception that is it the pet project of a small, self-appointed group of civic leaders is becoming a liability. "I don't think there's enough buy-in yet," he said. "But there will be."


Walsh has already had one idea for securing the hefty financing that will eventually be required for the bid to advance. "Maybe," he said, "we can put up City Hall for collateral."

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.