Boston’s Olympic Opposition Lays Out Arguments and Plans

Economist and Smith College Professor Andrew Zimbalist addresses a crowd during a No Boston Olympics public meeting Wednesday.
Economist and Smith College Professor Andrew Zimbalist addresses a crowd during a No Boston Olympics public meeting Wednesday. –AP

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and the Olympic bidding group Boston 2024 have said they believe the majority of the public supports holding the 2024 Summer Games in the Hub. With little public polling on the issue to this point, it’s hard to judge whether that’s the case.

But if No Boston Olympics, the group leading the opposition to the city’s bid, does represent a minority, it showed that it plans to be a vocal one at a public meeting it held in the Back Bay Tuesday night. More than 100 people attended the meeting at the First Church in Boston.

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What’s in it for Boston?

The meeting featured a talk by sports economist and Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist.

Zimbalist, who has written extensively on the lack of economic benefits sporting events like the Olympics bring to cities and countries, scoffed at the idea that Boston’s bid can be done on a $4.5 billion budget for operating expenses, and said he was skeptical that the budget can be entirely privately financed (as is proposed by Boston 2024). Boston 2024 also says public money would go toward infrastructure and security.

Zimbalist discussed some of the hidden expenses to hosting the Olympics, including the loss of advertising revenue on the MBTA during the Olympics. (The International Olympic Committee has historically required control of advertising space in the host city during and around the Olympics. An example of host city requirements built into the bidding process can be seen here, from page 213 on.) He also said that construction costs can go up if planning falls behind at all, because projects may need to be done in a rush as the Games approach.

“It’s one thing to have a nice idea and say the private sector is going to cover this,’’ he said. “It’s another thing to have hard contracts.’’

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No Boston Olympics co-chair Chris Dempsey hit on the “opportunity costs’’ associated with the Games, which has been a common refrain of the group over the past couple of months, suggesting that an Olympics bid will be top priority for of City Hall and the State House over the next several years. Dempsey said that for No Boston Olympics, the question isn’t whether Boston can host the Games, but whether it should.

Transparency still a clear concern.

At the beginning of the meeting, No Boston Olympics co-chair Liam Kerr asked that people raise their hands to bring everybody to attention. “That’s the most civic participation we’ve had in the process so far,’’ he said once they did, drawing laughter.

The lack of public involvement in the bidding process has been another regular criticism brought by No Boston Olympics, and remained front of mind Wednesday.

“Only a handful of people in Massachusetts have had the opportunity to read the bid,’’ Dempsey said. “That is not the democratic process that Massachusetts wants and needs,’’ he added.

No Boston Olympics has argued that there should have been more transparency ahead of Boston submitting its bid to the United States Olympic Committee in the first place. It has continued to call for the public release of plans since the city was chosen as its representative for the 2024 bid.

Minutes after the No Boston Olympics meeting ended, Boston 2024 announced it would make the bidding documents it submitted to the USOC available to the public and the media ahead of its own meeting next week. This is an adjustment from plans it had made on Tuesday to present the plan at the meeting and let the media look through documents afterward. Boston 2024 Executive Vice President Erin Murphy Rafferty said in a statement that “a limited amount of proprietary information that the USOC has asked us not to release’’ will not be shared “because they believe it will put Boston and the United States at a competitive disadvantage.’’

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Boston 2024 plans to hold monthly public meetings about the bid.

What’s next?

The meeting included some discussion of the group’s plans moving forward. No Boston Olympics has suggested it could take the issue to the ballot booth in some form for the 2016 election, and said that option—either at the state or city—remains on the table. (Walsh said last week that he does not think there will be a referendum on the topic.) Dempsey suggested that a referendum would, at the very least, further bring the public’s concerns into the fold.

“If we take a referendum strategy, then all of a sudden they’ve got to convince you,’’ he said.

Other options for the group, Dempsey said, include direct lobbying of IOC members to not choose Boston, and pushing for legislative action at the State House or with the Boston City Council. Asked what that might entail, Dempsey said the group could advocate for laws requiring more public input in the bidding process, or in setting restrictions on how public money could be put to use for the Olympics.

More immediately, No Boston Olympics is suggesting its supporters go to the planned City of Boston public meetings about the bid, the first of which is scheduled for Jan. 27 at Suffolk Law School. (You can see the full list here.) And another No Boston Olympics co-chair, Kelley Gossett Phillips, asked toward the end of the meeting whether those in attendance would like to meet again. Most raised their hands to signal yes.

One resident at the meeting, Edmund Schluessel, has participated in recent protests against police brutality in Boston, and said Wednesday night that a planned rally on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day will “make No Olympics a central demand,’’ partially out of apprehension for aggressive security measures that could come with hosting the Games.

Across the political aisle was a man named George Boag who ran for state representative representing the 36th Middlesex District in 2010.

“I ran for office as a Tea Party Republican. Let me tell you, this is an issue that will unite left and right,’’ Boag said.

On WGBH’s “Greater Boston’’ program Wednesday night, Boston 2024 President Dan O’Connell echoed Walsh in saying he can’t foresee a circumstance in which Boston’s bid doesn’t go forward to the International Olympic Committee later this year.

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