NO MASSACHUSETTS citizen ever cast a vote for John Fish.
Yet Fish, the driving force behind the effort to bring the 2024 Summer Games to Boston, stands to set a big part of the city and state agenda for the next decade. At a minimum, the construction company CEO is establishing the development and infrastructure priorities for Boston and beyond from now until 2017, when the International Olympic Committee is scheduled to select the 2024 host city.
A private citizen having that much power in setting the public agenda — that’s a radically different leadership model for Boston, especially given how things worked around here for the past 20 years. During the tenure of the late Mayor Tom Menino, the business community did what the mayor wanted; its leaders were afraid not to. Mayoral approval — not to mention building permits — hung in the balance. If Menino desired a certain type of rooftop design, he got it — along with support for building a Boston-based convention center and bringing a national political convention to the city.
While still in office, Menino labeled an Olympic bid “far-fetched.” His successor, Marty Walsh, was initially lukewarm but eventually hopped aboard the Fish bus.
Now Walsh — not Fish — will take any political heat for an idea that was not his own. The mayor is already fielding questions about transparency and process, and his decision to sign a contract with the US Olympic Committee that prohibits city employees from criticizing Boston’s bid is generating criticism. He opposes a referendum but said he wouldn’t stand in the way of a vote.
As more details seep out from Boston 2024, the local Olympic organizing committee chaired by Fish, it is clear that Boston’s bid could be as transformational as its promoters promise. Of course, the most dramatic transformation is planned around specific Olympic venues. So which neighborhoods benefit most is tied, first, to the specific needs of athletes, the media, and sponsors.
“Why are we doing this?” Fish asked in remarks to a community gathering held Wednesday night. He called the Games “a catalyst for economic growth, job creation, and prosperity.” A chance to enhance transportation, infrastructure, and housing across the city and state. The opportunity to shape, he explained, “the future of Boston.”
These are words that could have easily been spoken by a mayor — or a governor. But unlike either of those elected officers, Fish doesn’t have to answer to voters. That’s one reason it’s easy for him and Boston 2024 organizers to oppose a referendum — and decline to say whether they would be bound by its results.
As Boston 2024’s chairman, Fish can also choose his public moments. He didn’t attend a press conference scheduled earlier Wednesday, leaving the cranky media to Boston 2024 president Dan O’Connell, architect David Manfredi, and Cheri Blauwet, a Paralympian who won the 2004 and 2005 Boston Marathon woman’s wheelchair races.
Until money starts to flow, the precise beneficiaries are unknown. Fish has pledged that his firm, Suffolk Construction, will not bid on any projects directly related to Olympic venues. It will, however, “continue to do other work around the city,” said Doug Rubin, a consultant representing Boston 2024. Fish will also step down as chairman of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, he has said.
Yet financial questions will dog the Olympic bid process. Boston 2024’s biggest challenge is the promise to keep any public money out of this quest, except for infrastructure expenses. Organizers insist they can stay within a $4.7 billion operating budget, that will be financed through broadcast fees, corporate sponsorships, and ticket sales.
Asked during a Jan. 18 interview with WBZ political analyst Jon Keller whether he is low-balling the expense, Fish replied, “It’s like anything else when you talk about finances, the devil is in the details.”
He went on to explain how the Olympics differed from the Big Dig, which ballooned from initial cost estimates of $2.8 billion to more than $20 billion. “The Big Dig was conceived, developed, and constructed publicly,” Fish said. “There was no private-sector involvement from a leadership point of view. It was a government project. This is a public-private process, so you’ve got business at the table, day one.”
At the end of the day, it’s up to Fish to stay at that table and make sure the numbers add up. Boston has a lot to lose if they don’t.