April 30, 2015
Frankly, I’m not surprised at the level of skepticism that has greeted the possibility of the Summer Olympics coming to Boston. That Yankee caution and resistance to all things new has permeated our culture for centuries. And while as a region we often take pride in our adherence to tradition, it has often held us back, and the friction that is mounting against the Olympics is a perfect example of this.
Too much caution can put a wet blanket on risk-taking and investment. Tradition can stifle creativity. For example, social media was practically invented here in Boston, but the principals felt compelled to take their ideas to California, where they flourished. The same could be said of the Internet. I fear that too many bright young people, who were either born or studied here, are taking their energy and creative ideas someplace else. Why? Because Boston doesn’t offer the kind of nurturing, supportive, entrepreneurial environment that other areas do.
Ambitious ideas are often unwelcomed. Some of us remember well the skepticism regarding the building of Copley Place. The Central Artery project continues to be the butt of many jokes. Quincy Market couldn’t get financing locally, and had to be taken on by a developer from Baltimore. The harbor cleanup had to be forced upon us by the courts. Can anyone imagine Boston enjoying today’s success if these projects didn’t happen?
To be sure, the Boston 2024 committee members have taken some missteps. They should have anticipated the calls for a referendum. Their initial resistance only gave fuel to the skeptics, and put themselves in a defensive crouch that they have not to date been able to overcome. Further, property owners should have been given a thorough briefing about the possible use of their properties before the plans were published. Still further, elected officials, like our own state senator, Linda Dorcena Forry, want to be the first to know, not the last to know, when Olympic plans involve their districts. It’s a matter of simple courtesy. People need to be consulted before reading about it in the papers.
For all that, I think the critics have gone too far. Here are just three examples of what I mean:
• No tax dollars. This seems to be the ultimate litmus test. But even using this very limited standard, this sentiment doesn’t make sense. If we are successful, the Olympics will require $4.7 billion in private investment, which will be the capital costs of all the new venues as well as the operating costs for the games themselves. Without even considering the jobs and other economic opportunities that will follow from such an investment, simply applying sales and/or income taxes to this figure represents a windfall to the Commonwealth of over $250 million in new tax revenue. This is money the state wouldn’t be receiving if the Games go to Rome.
Similarly, the games take place in July and August, historically a slower time for restaurants and hotels. With every hotel room in the greater Boston area booked, and the restaurants full of customers, this would be a significant boost in meals and lodging taxes, of which Boston would get a significant share. The city and state could come out as major winners financially, so using tax dollars shouldn’t be ruled out categorically.
• John Fish must go. He has become a lightning rod for the naysayers, and there are now calls for him to step down. What a mistake! He has been the single most important person in securing the USOC designation, which was an extraordinary accomplishment. More importantly, by far the biggest challenge to having a successful Olympics in Boston will be the execution of the plan. In other words, getting all of the venues and other support facilities built on time and on budget. John might not be the most diplomatic person, but with Suffolk Construction job signs all over the East Coast, most especially here in Boston, he is by far the most dynamic construction executive in the city, and maybe even the country. Bill Belichick might be similarly warmth-challenged, but no one is calling for him to step down.
• Deval Patrick’s big stipend. As a successful lawyer, a senior member of the Clinton administration, a former senior executive to two Fortune 500 companies, and a former two- term governor, his compensation was not all that out of line. That statement might be offensive to the op-ed writers at the Globe and Herald, but it’s true. His role will be crucial and he will need to be fully engaged if our bid is to be successful. The last time the United States hosted the Summer Olympics was in Atlanta in 1996. Many observers attributed the city’s surprising success to the role played by Andrew Young. A prominent African American with experience as a US ambassador and mayor of Atlanta, he personally connected with many individual members of the IOC, a large number of whom were people of color. Patrick is perfectly suited to play a similar role, and he will send an important message to the international community that Boston is a diverse and inclusive city. In the end, it’s all about getting the votes, and no true Bostonian can quibble with that.
I don’t think it’s too late to get Boston 2024 back on track; the idea is too good and too promising for the bidding process to fail now. Many of the IOC’s decision makers already have a favorable impression of the Boston area, having come here as students, medical patients, or tourists. And by 2024, the US will not have had the Summer Games in 28 years.
Boston can have a successful Olympics if its citizens can overcome the deeply inbred skepticism and negativity that has been passed down from the Puritans who founded the city in 1630. In so doing, we might just eliminate this self-defeating defect once and for all.
Our biggest challenge will be to stop obsessing about all the things that might go wrong, begin to imagine how great and glorious those three weeks will be, and work hard to make them a reality.
Jim Keefe is the president of Trinity Financial, Inc. He is a longtime resident of Dorchester.