Chicago can’t squander Olympic opportunity

    It turns out that the city of big shoulders may have some feet made of clay.

    You perhaps might think that having an opportunity to host the 2016 Summer Olympics would be a unifying call to action for the city of Chicago.

    But apparently not so.

    Nearly as many Chicago residents oppose Mayor Richard Daley’s Olympic plans (45 percent) as support them (47 percent), according to the latest poll by the Chicago Tribune.

    And Chicago residents increasingly and overwhelmingly oppose using tax dollars to cover any financial shortfalls for the Games, with 84 percent disapproving of the use of public money.
    The opposition even crystallized into an organized group, No Games Chicago, which plans to demonstrate against the bid when the International Olympic Committee meets in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Friday to decide which city will host the 2016 Games.

    Chicago is one of the finalists in the selection process, along with Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo.

    Despite the ruckus, a private group, Chicago 2016, has raised more than $40 million in private dollars to support the bid, and the city of Chicago has pledged the customary $500 million in insurance and its full financial liability and legislative support to secure investment in the Games. Daley has promised his constituents that they will not be left holding the bag for the Olympics.

    Before it squanders this once-in-a-century opportunity to attract the eyes of the world, perhaps Chicago should look to the South for some guidance.

    Atlanta’s $1.7 billion private-funded investment in hosting the 1996 Summer Olympics helped revitalize its downtown and poured $5 billion into that metropolitan area’s economy during the next decade, according to the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

    Atlanta’s cost was less than half of the $4.8 billion Chicago has estimated it will need to raise if the city is awarded the 2016 Olympic Games.

    "Atlanta benefited more than any other city in the history of the Olympics," A.D. Frazier, the chief operating officer for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, told the Chicago Tribune. "Afterward, we had no debt and we left behind a legacy of privately funded structures the city would not have seen otherwise."

    Billy Payne, the Atlanta businessman who spearheaded the city’s bid, told the Tribune that the greatest gift of the 1996 Games was not the economic benefits but the civic pride that still lingers from having hosted the Olympics.

    "Winning the games is the most uplifting, prideful, beat-on-your-chest moment Atlantans ever experienced," Payne told the newspaper. "If you win a Super Bowl and a World Series and multiply it by 100, that is the passion and pride you feel about the opportunity to welcome the world to your community."

    Most of Atlanta’s downtown growth was directly related to Centennial Park, the anchor for more than $1.8 billion in hotels, office buildings and high-rise apartments built since the Olympics, the chamber said.

    Public polls aside, Daley is accustomed to getting his way in the town he inherited from his father. He’ll even have Oprah Winfrey at his side this week to help him make the case to the IOC.
    Furthermore, President Barack and Michelle Obama will make personal appearances on behalf of the Chicago bid.

    Obama does so at risk of great political peril. He will become the first sitting U.S. president to make such a pitch. Imagine the embarrassment he would face around the world if he makes the best case for Chicago, and the IOC turns it down. I mean, here’s the leader of the free world, and he can’t even persuade the Olympics to come to his hometown? How would that affect his credibility for health care reform, the war in Afghanistan, peace in the Middle East, trade relations with China or sanctions against Iran?

    Obama already is being criticized by some for pausing to lobby on behalf of the Olympics for his hometown. Here’s a news flash: Presidents can multi-task.

    With so much at stake, it makes me think that Obama has some pretty good insider assurances that if he makes the case, Chicago will get the nod. If not, he is making a terrible political miscalculation that will damage his presidency.

    Meanwhile, us Wisconsinites can hold our collective breath and see if we can ride Chicago’s coattails all the way to 2016. Having the world down the street, or Interstate, will certainly have a significant spillover effect that might even be the final catalyst for modern regional mass transit in southeastern Wisconsin.

    If Chicago lands the gig, the Milwaukee-area business community should immediately coalesce to develop a cohesive strategy to get a piece of that pie. There will be Olympic buildings, hotels and restaurants to design and construct, there will be infrastructure improvements to be made and there will be services to be provided in the Windy City. It would be nice if some of our companies land some of those contracts.

    And isn’t it amusing that Madison would then be the host city of the cycling competition? I mean, the events would go to Madison because they could not find enough hills in Illinois

    Gotta love those Flatlanders.


    Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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