Metro

Boston 2024 tries to overcome some slips at starting block

Olympic backers pursue collaborative approach

“We had the conversation backwards – our fault,” said David Manfredi, co-chairman of Boston 2024’s master planning committee.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File
“We had the conversation backwards – our fault,” said David Manfredi, co-chairman of Boston 2024’s master planning committee.

Boston Olympic organizers thought they would be welcomed enthusiastically when they showed up at a community meeting in Franklin Park. After all, they were promising to refurbish the park’s long-neglected stadium, build a swimming pool and classrooms, and spruce up the golf course.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Instead, they got an earful from residents and advocates who said new buildings, no matter how enticing, threatened to consume the park’s open space, and what they really needed was more money to maintain the trees, trails, and fields, many of which are in disrepair.

Advertisement

“It was a rocky evening — no question about it,” said David Manfredi, cochairman of Boston 2024’s master planning committee. “I walked out that night and somebody stopped me and said, ‘Was that what you expected?’ And I said, ‘No.’ ”

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The rough reception was emblematic of the struggles Boston 2024 has encountered as it travels across the city pitching plans that were developed behind closed doors, without consultation from local landlords, advocates, and neighborhood groups, all of which are accustomed to playing a role in approving and shaping construction projects.

The Franklin Park meeting, a day after Mayor Martin J. Walsh sought to bolster the Olympic effort with an impassioned speech, also touched off an escalating series of political problems for Boston 2024 that culminated in its calling for a statewide referendum last week.

As Boston 2024 officials try to regroup and focus on a 19-month battle to win voters’ support, they are aware that they need to avoid the type of political pitfalls that have beset them. But more fundamentally, they say, they must learn from the mistakes they made at that community meeting three weeks ago.

“We had the conversation backwards — our fault,” Manfredi said. “We talked about the Olympics, and then we talked about the legacy. We should have talked about the legacy, and then the Olympics. And we shouldn’t have proposed a legacy. We should have asked about the legacy.”

Advertisement

As Manfredi and other Boston 2024 officials made their pitch that night, sitting in the audience, in a baseball cap and blue jacket, was former governor Deval Patrick.

Boston 2024 had hired him to lobby the International Olympic Committee, but had not told Walsh or Governor Charlie Baker, who aides said were blindsided by the news.

When Boston 2024 refused to detail how much it was paying the former governor, Walsh went public with his frustration, calling on the group to disclose the salaries of its staff and consultants.

Within hours, Boston 2024 released its payroll, revealing that Patrick was to be paid $7,500 a day when he traveled on behalf of the bid. That prompted Walsh to fire another shot, saying Patrick’s advocacy would mean more if he weren’t doing it for a fee. Almost instantly, Patrick agreed to forgo his pay, saying he would help the bid for free “as and when I can.”

Despite Walsh’s intervention, the controversies seemed to take a toll, as support for the bid among Boston-area residents dropped to 36 percent this month, down from 44 percent in February and 51 percent in January, according to a WBUR poll.

Advertisement

Walsh’s camp complains that Boston 2024 took too long to realize that, although it is private, it must operate like a public agency where salaries and other information are routinely released.

Walsh’s relationship with John Fish, the construction magnate who is chairman of Boston 2024, has not soured, according to people close to both men. But Walsh, according to one city official, feels he must keep an eye on “the political and the common-sense stuff” as Boston 2024 makes it case.

The question of whether to back a referendum had been discussed internally at Boston 2024 for several weeks. Even residents who supported the bid told the group it would boost their confidence if the effort was backed by voters, not just high-powered business and political leaders.

The idea gained greater urgency after Boston 2024 published newspaper ads last Monday saying it would go forward with the bid only if it had majority support from residents. When Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey both said later that day that they would support a referendum, Boston 2024 had little choice but to back one.

Some close to the mayor liken Boston 2024 to a political campaign that has stumbled. They say the next few weeks will be critical to determine whether the group can regain its footing without sparking more controversy.

In an interview, Walsh said his support for the effort has not wavered. The mayor said he hopes the bid can move forward now that questions about pay at Boston 2024 have been answered and organizers have agreed to a statewide vote.

“The public has been distracted by a lot of outside conversation and chatter around the Olympics,” Walsh said. “I think it’s time for us now to come together and talk about what the benefits are of an Olympic bid for the city of Boston.”

And that has to start, organizers said, with a more collaborative approach with residents.

For example, Manfredi said, Boston 2024 should have known that the Franklin Park Coalition had been trying to hire an arborist to maintain its 200 acres of woodland and that supporting that proposal might have gone further than the splashier plans for a pool.

“We should have known that,” Manfredi said. “Did not know that. . . . And I walked out saying, ‘Oh, how stupid.’ ”

Christine Poff, executive director of the Franklin Park Coalition, said the group has mixed feelings about using the park to host Olympic equestrian competitions and the modern pentathlon.

Half the members, she said, would love a swimming pool; half would be horrified. Some want to tear down White Stadium; others would love to see it restored. She wants to ensure the park, designed in the late 1880s by Frederick Law Olmsted, is preserved as green space, and not seen as open land for development.

“Franklin Park has not received much investment in years, and we’d love that to happen, but it’s weighing the costs and benefits,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out what we should say no to, or yes to, and what we just have to live with.”

Michael Levenson
can be reached at michael.levenson@globe.com.