…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Businesses and Pols Rally for Chicago Olympics, But Residents Fear Cost, Corruption & Gentrification
Categories: Commentary, Politics

by Meg White

Anyone who has spent any time in Chicago this summer knows what Mayor Richard M. Daley wants for an early Christmas present. Chicago 2016 posters are plastered all over the city, urging residents to “let friendship chicago 2016shine.” Public school students were recently roped into the act with a full week of Olympic bid boosterism.

Over the past few weeks, riders on the city’s buses have been subjected to pre-recorded messages playing over the vehicles’ speakers from six former Olympians expressing their unmitigated enthusiasm for Chicago as 2016′s host city.

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has been flooded with calls from annoyed riders and has had its fair share of negative press over their unannounced decision to air the messages at no charge. The CTA insists that they are not advertising, and says the spots were produced by Chicago 2016, the nonprofit group organizing the bid.

So with the hard sell Chicagoans have gotten of late, Monday’s news that President Obama will travel to Copenhagen Thursday to give a final pitch for Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympic games to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) surprised few here in Obama’s (and BuzzFlash’s) home town. Seeing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in the White House two weeks ago prompted locals to guess that a “surprise announcement” of a last-minute appearance by Obama in Copenhagen was to be expected and had been planned for months.

There’s no doubt that Obama’s presence will make a big difference in Chicago’s chances. This NBC Chicago story suggests the well-timed announcement amounts to a lock on the bid, despite the sentimental appeal of fellow candidate city Rio de Janeiro:

But the International Olympic Committee will throw all that emotional baggage out the window if they get a chance to fawn over the most popular man in the world.

As a matter of fact, ever since the president began dipping his toe in the Copenhagen water, no one seems to be talking about Rio.

But does Chicago even want the Games? It’s tough to find someone without a political or financial interest in the Olympics who fully supports the 2016 effort. A succession of opinion polls from the Chicago Tribune shows that support for the 2016 Olympic bid is down from 2 to 1 back in February to an almost even split.

The more recent poll, conducted this month, finds a whopping 84 percent of those polled are opposed to using public funds. This has been a major sticking point ever since Daley decided that in order for his city to be a viable candidate, he would have to put taxpayers on the hook for potential financial losses due to the games, as the other candidate cities had already done.

The Tribune/WGN poll is the first measure of public sentiment since Daley did an about-face in June, saying he would sign the standard host city contract giving the city full financial responsibility for any losses — a move that triggered a firestorm of criticism. Until then, the city had been lobbying for amendments to the contract that would recognize the city’s limited guarantees.

Poll respondents made it abundantly clear that they disapprove of Daley’s promise of an unlimited guarantee in the event the Games lose money, with 75 percent opposed.

The contentious nature of funding the games in Chicago has not gone unnoticed by the IOC. Their report on Chicago earlier this month noted finances were the main problem with Chicago’s bid.

Damages to the city may far exceed profits as well. A report issued by the Civic Federation in August found that “development of the Olympic Village exposes the city to continuing real estate risks that must be managed.” Crain’s Chicago Business found significant shortfalls in the insurance purchases for the event, potentially putting citizens on the hook for upwards of $1 billion.

But as much as this is a story about taxpayers, it’s also about the politicians spending their money. All politics are local, even when they’re international. In this case, Daley — who in some circles is known as a “benevolent dictator” who keeps his city council in line with his priorities in every vote that matters to him — has recently pushed through some pretty controversial privatization schemes. But selling off city resources still hasn’t been enough to keep the coffers filled. The new sin taxes being implemented and a property tax hike likely waiting in the wings combined with declining incomes and rising foreclosures has made some Chicagoans wonder where their money is going.

Above-the-board taxation aside, some worry about the so-called “corruption tax” and whether or not the amount of money Chicago spends on misappropriated funds, legal settlements and other results of corruption will skyrocket under the increased “opportunities” that will come with the Olympics.

And, as local political columnist Ben Joravsky writes in an open letter to the IOC, Mayor Daley’s practice of skimming property taxes on behalf of private developers, also known as Tax Increment Financing districts or TIFs, should give pause:

And then there are the TIFs: $550 million a year in property taxes siphoned from the schools and parks to feed slush funds that Mayor Daley controls with virtually no oversight. At the moment, the public is conveniently in the dark about them because they’re too complicated for the mainstream press to cover and our tax bills don’t reflect how much we’re paying to keep them funded. But every year the TIF take rises and sooner or later the public will catch on. (If you’d like to bone up on the subject, see chicagoreader.com/tifarchive.)

Again, I know it’s not your problem if the city is selling off public assets or keeping two sets of books. But I do think you’ll want to keep these things in mind as you consider whether the bid committee’s financial guarantees are worth the paper they’re written on.

In a separate piece, Joravsky notes that many contractors donating to the nonprofit organization heading the bid have received money from the aforementioned “slush funds.” He said many contributors who consented to speak with him off the record felt pressured to chip in, and Joravsky strongly suggests there’s a pay-to-play element affecting the coffers of Chicago 2016.

Joravsky believes the political support for the bid is hollow as well, noting in his letter that several city council members have told him that they’re only voting for and contributing money to the Olympic bid to avoid the wrath of the mayor, and are hoping the IOC does “the dirty work of killing the games.” Joravsky also worries about a popular revolt against the games, if Chicago gets them, along the lines of the rejection handed to the IOC by Coloradans when they were offered the 1976 Olympics.

Another Chicago columnist supposes the bid is not about “sport” or friendship, but pure politics:

But grown-ups know that the Chicago Olympics are about keeping Daley in power. Period. It began four years ago, just as big business and labor and the guys behind the guys started wondering if Daley was weakening. A boss thought to be weak is a boss in danger. So just getting to this point has been a masterful political stroke on the part of the mayor.

OK, Chicago columnists are clearly not backing the bid, but why would they? They have little to gain from the games. That is why the condemnation of Chicago’s bid from two prominent sports writers is more significant. Rick Telander, senior sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, slapped the naughty hand of Chicago 2016 and cited corruption as the best reason for the IOC to reject the city’s bid. The sportswriter for the Chi-Town Daily News called arguments for the bid “Orwellian,” citing the untenable nature of the proposed Olympic village.

While money and politics seem to characterize support for the bid, groups organized in opposition have a more varied response.

No2016GamesChicago.com is a coalition of human rights advocates and lawyers whose fundamental opposition to the games rests on the decades of torture carried out by the Chicago Police Department.

NOlympics operates under several objections, summing them up with this question: “the Olympics is a contested symbol that increasingly flies underneath the banner of the multi-national corporations which profit from its advertising. Another consistent theme of the games is the debt which is incurred by the host city, on almost every occasion in the last 30 years. The banner of the Olympic games is also increasingly tainted by corruption -– consistently charged in nearly every city in which it takes place. Could Chicago avoid such a temptation?”

Preservation Chicago cautions that the destruction of the mid-century Michael Reese Hospital in order to build the Olympic village would be a short-sighted mistake by the city. The hospital’s destruction is on hold currently, but there is speculation that it will be torn down shortly to make way for new development.

Chicago Rehab Network worried in a report last year about “potential impacts to public land, natural areas and long-term affordability” in the development of the Olympic village, and noted that redevelopment plans may “‘price out’ many current residents.”

Other local worries include persistent transportation problems and past failures to manage large events when things do not go as planned.

This site purports to offer a balanced, unbiased discussion of the bid. It also accuses Chicago 2016 of skewing opinion polls in favor of the bid and puts them at fault for not offering any forum for those who oppose the bid.

However, in an atmosphere where even political and financial supporters of the bid are skeptical of what kind of good, if any, the games will bring to Chicago, “opposition” and “support” take on new definitions.

In advocating for such a conflicted city, mere lip service will not be enough to win the bid, which is why President Obama is going to Copenhagen this week. If his effort does succeed in getting the IOC to grant Daley’s wish, however, the president may find himself going home to record a couple spots with the CTA, assuring Chicagoans that this whole Olympics thing is going to work out just fine in the end.


Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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