Now, I went to another one of these a couple weeks back. At the last one, the Olympic Committee squared off with a group that didn't want the Olympics in Chicago. The difference here was that this particular "town hall" was put on entirely by the Chicago 2016 Olympic Committee. As such, this was something akin to a public propaganda campaign tour. The Olympic committee is holding one in each of the city's 50 wards. The presentation was a big dog and pony show. It had two former Olympians, both now local college softball coaches, on the stage to describe the Olympic experience. They put on a quick power point presentation in which the committee assures the city that: there will be $22.5 billion in economic activity, 315,000 jobs created, and that the city would not pay one single dime t put on the games. It's important to note that these numbers come from a study commissioned from the Olympic Committee itself.
The real fireworks started when the questions started. The questions were about 75-25 skeptical to supporting. The questions ranged from skeptical budgetary issues, displacement of the poor, transparency, to statements of support for how exciting it would be to have Chicago host the Olympics.
One questioner summed up the cynicism of the entire exercise. She wondered why these town halls were being held now a couple months before the bid is decided and not a year and two ago. The bid was officially kicked off in March of 2007. There was little media attention about, it then, and the mayor even snuck in a commitment of $500 million from the city to pay for the games in 2007. (even though he continues to guarantee that the city will pay no money to host the games) The reason they're doing these dog and pony shows now is because the bid has finally received some serious negative publicity in the last few months. First, the mayor sprung on the city the need to sign a host city contract in May which would hold the city liable for any and all expenses above and beyond that which the IOC would set aside in the beginning. Then, there was the revelation that Michael Scott, a major player in the Olympic Committee, secured a sweetheart land contract near Washington Park, where some of the events would be held. Finally, there have been a series of scandals and the debacle regarding the parking meter. As such, one could call these late scheduled town hall meetings a sort of damage control.
The most probing question came from a member of No Games Chicago. No Games Chicago represented the other side at the previous town hall I was at. As the no implies, No Games is trying to stop the games from coming to Chicago. A member asked about their budget projections for the Olympic Village. According to their projections, the village would cost about $1 billion even though that village has about 7000 units while the one in Vancouver will also cost $1 billion even though it has only 1000 units. The committee responded by insisting that their budget has been scrutinized by independent sources and the Chicago Civic Federation will run their own audit later this month.
Speak of the Chicago Civic Federation, one questioner pointed out that the Federation's top award in 2007 went to Pat Ryan. Pat Ryan is one of the top folks on the Olympic Bid Committee. She pointed out that the board and higher ups are full of folks with ties to the Olympic bid. This is very important. That's because Alderman Flores told me last Friday that the Civic Committee's report will be treated with a great deal of deference. If in fact they aren't objective, that report will have little meaning. I confess that I didn't know about the Federation's ties to the Olympic Committee and will be sure to ask the Alderman about that.
I even got a question in. One individual asked how much was going to be spent for "capital projects". In other words, how much will the budget be for all the stadiums, velodromes, and pools. The moderator said that the budget was $980 million. This seemed dubious. Millennium Park cost about $450 million. That was about three times the original budget. Now, the Olympic Committee is proclaiming that the entire Olympic capital project would only cost twice as much as Millennium Park. This seemed dubious and I asked about this. The moderator went into a song and dance about how Millennium Park was a sort of organic project that changed and evolved over time and that wouldn't happen in the Olympics because as she proclaimed, "a track field is just a track field". In other words, the Olympic Committee would have us believe that building multiple tracks, stadiums, and pools is a less complicated project than Millennium Park. That speaks for itself.
There were concerns about crime, affordable housing, and schools. The questioner that crystallized the issue for me was senior citizen that identified herself as living in the 46th ward for 58 years. She screamed about how an area by Addison and Sheridan (right next to Lake Michigan and about four blocks from Wrigley Field) that was reserved for a green area set aside for birds was going to have 13 Olympic sized tennis courts built near it and thus ruin the green area. She emphatically screamed, "the citizens of the ward weren't consulted and we don't want it" (referring of course to the tennis courts) I had a chance to speak with her afterwards. She believes that her Alderman, Helen Shiller, has made a deal with Mayor Daley. Shiller is a big proponent of low and moderate income housing. She serves a ward with a fairly health population of poor and moderate income folks. It's seen a dramatic increase in high rise and condos during the boom. Now, she's gotten a huge political victory. That victory is a the Wilson Yards project. The Alderman recently secured construction of this project and this is a major construction of low and moderate income housing in her ward. This lady believes that the Alderman received funding for her pet project (which is listed on her web site) in exchange for support for the Olympics.
Obviously, we'll never know how deals were made when they were made behind closed doors. The problem is that games have been done entirely without the public's input. These 50 ward by ward town halls were done only in response to public outcry. During the debate, I felt as though the city is on the brink of its own tea party over this issue. The Olympics is all part of a deeper web of corruption and cynicism embedded in Chicago. Most people see the Olympics as nothing more than a boon for Daley and his lackeys. They don't believe the pols and the Committee when they claim that there won't be any tax payer funds used. I feel as though the city is on the brink of critical mass and I'm almost ready to predict a tea party over the Olympics though that might be more wishful thinking than objective analysis.
To Chicago, the Olympic bid is much like health care is to the country. The politicians and the elites tell the rest of us how great it will be, while the public at large doesn't want it. Most polls suggest the residents aren't terribly excited about the Olympics. The public definitely doesn't want it if tax payer money is used. There is a level of distrust of city government in Chicago never seen during Daley's tenure. The difference between the Olympics and health care is that Daley rules Chicago in a way that Obama only wishes he could rule D.C. Unlike D.C., whatever Daley wants he gets. As such, even though the public is overwhelmingly against spending all this money for the Olympics, the city will move forward regardless of what the public thinks. There may still be time and I for one hope that a Chicago Tea Party is formed to take on all of the corruption that surrounds the Olympics bid.
Finally, it appears that I should have gone outside after the town hall because Alderman Shiller was chased out by a group of protesters protesting gang violence.
Please check out my new books, "Bullied to Death: Chris Mackney's Kafkaesque Divorce and Sandra Grazzini-Rucki and the World's Last Custody Trial"