What we should be asking about Boston’s Olympics bid
Since January, when the United States Olympic Committee chose Boston to compete for the 2024 Summer Games, the fate of the bid has turned into a sporting event of its own. This rush to judgment, and the increasingly shrill “no public money” chant from the sidelines, obscures an essential truth needed to decide whether it’s a good idea to bring the Games to Boston — we should be asking a more challenging set of questions.
It makes more sense to think about the expense of the Games in three buckets: operations, venues, and infrastructure. The easiest question is whether the operation of the Games — a 17-day mega-event nine summers from now — can be entirely financed privately through corporate sponsorships, broadcast revenue, ticket sales and the like. Everyone seems to agree that no public money should be spent on this, other than for security, most of which should be reimbursed with federal funds.
The second question concerns the venues. Boston 2024 has advertised that it intends to use or repurpose existing facilities, mostly at colleges and universities, for many venues. Who will pay to build or improve these facilities, and what will happen to them after the Games are over? It seems obvious that if existing university sports venues are improved, this should be at private expense — Boston 2024’s or the schools’. And their post-Game use is not really in question.
The trickier questions concern new venues. Will public money be used for an athlete’s village at Columbia Point or a stadium at Widett Circle? Before shouting “no way!” we should ask some follow-up questions: What will happen to them after the Games? Will they serve a public purpose, such as affordable housing and UMass student housing, for which we would ordinarily be willing to spend public money?
Will they gestate economic development from which the city will benefit, advance long-term planning goals, or generate jobs and tax revenue that warrant targeted public support for site acquisition or access?
Will they provide new streets, sidewalks, and other public-realm improvements as part of their construction? We should evaluate them in the same way we consider public incentives and exactions for other private development projects.
We should also give Boston 2024 a chance to demonstrate that the new venues will not be white elephants — nobody wants to suffer useless Olympic artifacts littering the cityscape for decades. This may mean a bond posted in advance to secure their removal, or evidence of agreements with post-Game users to accept and maintain them.
The last set of questions concerns infrastructure to support the Games.
What mobility and open-space improvements — from multi-use paths and transit station upgrades to, most ambitiously, the long-dreamed-of Urban Ring — would help the Games run smoothly? We should be thinking about these in a very different way — not as costs which should be borne by the Games, but as potential investments in the city’s future which the Olympics could leverage and maybe even cross-subsidize.
If their value in moving our city forward justifies the public investment needed to build them, we should be building them anyway. The Olympics could provide some critical boosts: planning ideas generated at private expense; assistance in quantifying their cost and identifying funding sources; and maybe most important, setting a deadline to complete these projects.
Boston 2024 will be submitting revised venue plans by the end of June that reflect what it’s heard on its listening tour and will use the flexibility offered by the IOC’s new Agenda 2020 rules to spread venues out, even to other states. The revised venue plan will, hopefully, shed light on these cost-benefit questions and help the City of Boston and other public bodies evaluate their financial commitment to the Games.
This gets us to the real question underlying the entire Olympic debate. Boston may not need the Games to emerge on the world stage: We’re already there as a thriving city with a diverse economy fueled by history and innovation.
But we face many challenges — from housing affordability to decaying infrastructure — as we continue to grow and change. The question is how the Games can help us become the city we aspire to be, and there is no quick answer.
We should be asking the organizers the right questions and giving them a chance to prove their case.
Matthew Kiefer is a land use attorney at the law firm of Goulston & Storrs. Samuel R. Tyler is president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.