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Monday, March 26, 2007

Games plan tough to follow

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Hey, wait a minute. I thought that Mayor Richard M. Daley said holding the 2016 Olympics in Chicago wouldn't cost taxpayers anything.

Now we discover it could cost hundreds of millions. Of course, some cynics might say, Daley made the promise before the election (BE) and now it is after the election (AE) when everything said earlier is off the table. But I don't think the election had anything to do with it. He could have unveiled the complex financing plan the day before the election and who would have cared or understood?

A broken promise isn't the problem with the plan; it's the financing itself, which might be compared to a house of cards, if I understand it correctly. Which I'm not sure I do, but I guess that's the point. Columnists have more fun writing about outgoing Ald. Arenda Troutman's (20th) outrageous comparison of the 2016 Olympics with Adolf Hitler's 1936 version than trying to fathom the details of the Games' financing. You can skip a couple of paragraphs if you're not interested in details and take it for granted that if it involves local politicians, there's something odorous about it. So here goes:

The Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority (McPier), a city-state agency controlled by the city, sells the air rights it owns over land south of McCormick Place to a developer who builds walls of apartment buildings for the Olympians that are converted later to commercial housing, and McPier gives the money to the city, which gives it to Chicago 2016, the local Olympic organizing committee that likes to work out of the public view, which uses the money to help fund a temporary Olympic stadium, which later is converted to public use for concerts and so forth, but McPier retains a part ownership in the property, which it then sells outright or leases to an operations manager.

Now, if this and other aspects of the Olympic financing end up in red ink, Chicago must come up with $500 million in guarantees out of the public purse and who knows where else, but the mayor soothingly assures everyone that he remains committed to his promise not to use public money to support the Olympics. After the City Council was briefed privately about these and presumably the other intricacies--and surely, they understood them all--it later overwhelmingly approved the package like good boys and girls.

The public was kept in the dark until the Tribune sniffed it out. When asked later about his pledge that it wouldn't cost taxpayers anything, Daley responded, "we're not putting any actual money in," meaning, I guess, that selling public assets--the air rights--isn't actually putting any actual money into it. Maybe that's technically right, even though city, suburban and state taxpayers no longer own the assets--whose value may have spiked up to $100 million thanks to the Olympics-generated demand, even if Chicago is not awarded the Olympics. It's sort of like not actually putting actual money into the purchase of a new car when you trade in the old. I guess.

All of Daley's great assurances are not comforting when the cost of the 2012 London Olympics has tripled to $18 billion. In the face of this, we are expected to believe that Chicago can pull off the Games for $5 billion. Daley assures us, again, that 2012 and 2016 are not comparable, because Chicago would not be building a lot of new stuff, like London. We've already got the United Center, U.S. Cellular and Wrigley Fields, O'Hare International Airport and so forth, he said. "They had to build all the parks, all the transit," he said, as if the CTA will really impress the Olympic selection committee.

When Daley first suggested getting the Games here, I said the idea should be given a chance to prove itself. So far, the proof we've been allowed to peek at hasn't been all that convincing. But that apparently doesn't matter to the Olympic planners here; they said some secrecy is necessary because we don't want to give anything away to our competitors in Los Angeles.

But there's also some of the public-be-damned way the public's business is conducted here, based on the belief that the public, even if it could understand what's going on, would screw things up. That's too bad; the skepticism that they've already created with this approach hasn't served their cause well, because the project won't get anywhere without public support. At least that's the theory.


Ricky Rat said...

I wouldn't want the Olympics here even if we could trust that it wouldn't cost us any money in the end -- and even if it generated enough profits to pay every area resident $500 for the hassles we'll have to endure. The Olympics are nothing more than an irrelevant and costly nuisance.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone noticed that the shadow of Batman is standing on top of the trademarked Olympic torch in the photograph behind Mayor Daley?