Globe columnists duel over Boston Olympics bid by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is begin cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

photo South Boston Today

photo South Boston Today

It’s great fun to see two outstanding Boston Globe opinion writers going at a subject hammer and tong, in total disagreement about the Olympics, Boston 2024 and the psychic state of the organizers as well as that of the people of Massachusetts.   Joan Vennochi does a surgical rearrangement of John Fish, the driving force behind bringing the summer ’24 games to Boston, in John Fish is Boston 2024’s main force – and its liability.

In response, business section columnist and Olympics booster Shirley Leung asserts “it’s not John Fish; it’s us.”  (Never mind that grammatically it should be “it’s we.” ) Leung insists we’re just naysayers and at risk of becoming the laughing stock of the universe.  I concede there’s a bit of Schadenfreude when a self-appointed group of wealthy elites falls flat on its collective face.  Who are they, after all, to think we’d fall for a plan, conceived in near secrecy, details veiled still, a plan that the rest of us may end up having to pay for?  And we should just thank them for all they’re doing on a rip-off that will benefit many of them financially and for which we will have to ante up taxpayer dollars and disrupt our lives?  Well, it’s not that simple.

We should be looking at the Olympics proposal seriously and not rejecting it summarily. It should be thoughtfully deliberated despite the many communications errors executed by Fish et al. Public doubts are not just because the proponents’ messages have been inartfully delivered. Naysayers, for the most part, aren’t parochial rubes.  Doubters have legitimate questions, and Boston 2024 movers and shakers have been dead wrong to sniff with disdain at anyone who wants more and better answers before joining the bandwagon.

Taxpayer funding is at the top of the list.  With only a couple of exceptions, Olympics cities have run in the red and taxpayers have been left holding the bag, often for billions of dollars.  If Boston follows the example of London, for example, the Boston2024 cost estimate could triple. Organizers say they’ll purchase insurance to cover any overruns, but, as Scot Lehigh ably points out, it just doesn’t sound feasible.  Some observers say organizers should bring in Mitt Romney to replace John Fish.  Romney, they say, turned around the Salt Lake Olympics. But remember, to do it he got a great infusion of post 9/11 emotional  federal dollars.

London is instructive in another way: the Olympics bid fit in with an already designed strategy for rehabilitating an unused 500-acre industrial wasteland at the edge of city limits.  Meaning, irrespective of hosting the Olympics, Boston should be looking at what we want the city to look like in 2030, what are our needs and aspirations. Then, and only then, should we be weighing whether and to what extent this Olympics bid enhances that strategy. What we have now is the tail wagging the dog.

Should these problems derail the bid at this point? It could be an opportunity for a significant planning exercise.  That should have been the original starting point.

If you said to me, we can do this, we guarantee no cost to Massachusetts taxpayers, we will leave you with facilities, sites and infrastructure changes that can be repurposed for ends that we embrace, we will cause glory to rain down on our beloved city worldwide, then perhaps I would say go for it.  We’ve just survived the worst winter in history. Given the right set of circumstances, of course we can survive two and a half weeks of summer inconvenience, and we might have a little fun in the process.

But, without the predicate of a comprehensive and inclusive strategic plan in place, we run the risk that, for the foreseeable future, disproportionate time and energy will be focused on Olympics 2024.  Without the larger plan,  the Olympics project will become the prism through which every other public policy is viewed. Worse, the diversion of public attention could distract from strategic planning for housing, education, health care, and a comprehensive statewide upgrade of transportation.

We need a lot more facts and transparency from Boston 2024 before anyone should give their plan credence and respect. Changing its public relations team won’t change the underlying problems.

Mayor Marty Walsh should continue to step back from his unrestrained boosterism and convene the city’s leading thinkers and ordinary citizens to flesh out a shared Boston 2030 long-term vision and strategy for the city, which  builds on his early-stage 2030 housing and transportation initiatives. Under this scenario, a properly structured Olympics bid could be a helpful accelerant, regardless of the bidding outcome .

I welcome your comments in the section below.