Thursday, September 21, 2006

Olympic Sized Question Mark

On the surface it sounds great. Bring the Olympics to Chicago and host them at a brand new south side stadium, and you return Chicago to the international stage and the south side gets an economic boost. It'll be just like the 1893 World's Fair. Indeed, Washington Park, the proposed site of a collapsible Olympic stadium for the 2016 games, is just down the street from Jackson Park, home of Daniel Burnham's White City in 1893. The 95,000 seat stadium would be within walking distance of the Midway and the Museum of Science and Industry.

Mayor Richard Daley offers a host of explanations as to why this plan is good for the city and the south side. Share the wealth, he says. Da' Mayor's theory is that while it would be nice to have a stadium downtown, the only way the Olympics can have a lasting legacy for the city is to move the venues out into the neighborhoods. After the games, 85,000 seats would be removed, leaving behind a 10,000 seat, landscaped, below-ground amphitheater for concerts and cultural events. Lighting, security, parking and landscaping would be improved for the rest of the park as well. Even neighborhood streets and local stops on the L's green line would be overhauled.

It's actually a very admirable sentiment. It's also convenient for Daley that, facing criticism from U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., and other potential challengers in the upcoming mayoral election, that the Olympics would only benefit downtown Chicago, the Washington Park plan will earn Daley points on the city's largely African-American south side, where Da Mayor seems most vulnerable.

And, all of this would be privately funded. At least, so say Daley and his backers today. There has been no discussion of how exactly it would be funded, or even how much it would cost. It's a virtual guarantee that whoever funds it will be rewarded handsomely via tax incentives, loan forgiveness or some other municipal incentive.

And here's where an important question is being overlooked. If there is a benefit to building this stadium, I'm all for that benefit going to the city's too-often ignored south side. But should the city be building a stadium at all? Are the Olympics worth this commitment? Are the Olympics worth any commitment? It's tough as a sports fan to answer these questions objectively. I would love to see Chicago host the Olympics, as a sports fan. But I'm not sure I feel the same way as a citizen of the city.

On the surface, sports facilities appear to be great vehicles for economic development and urban renewal. But the evidence overwhelmingly shows that if the goal is economic development and urban renewal, then building a sports stadium is an entirely useless way to go about it. They neither increase per capita income in cities, nor decrease unemployment. Once the Olympics leave town, any money spent at the new facility will likely be money not spent at some currently existing entertainment venue in town. Studies have found that cities see zero lasting increase in tourism after hosting the Olympics. However much public money is spent on this project, whether its directly or by way of subsidies; tax breaks; loan, lease, and interest forgiveness; or some other government largesse, that money could generate more economic development and urban renewal if spent elsewhere.

And the pay-off isn't much brighter just because this stadium is attached to a "mega event" like the Summer Olympics. There is some evidence that events like the Olympics or a Super Bowl help a city's economy. Certainly, the evidence supports building a stadium for a mega event rather than for a professional sports team. But all of this evidence seems to flow from Atlanta's experience hosting both an Olympics and a Super Bowl within two years. Elsewhere, the evidence suggests that money made on the mega event is offset by money lost in other parts of the city's economy. A study by economists at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, found: "The evidence of positive economic benefits from mega sporting events should be considered weak at best." It seems to remain the case that if the idea is to promote economic growth, then there are better ways to spend the city's resources (roads, schools and job-training programs jump to mind).

Prospective economic studies (as compared to studies that look back at actual data) are notoriously optimistic. Still, I'm open to being convinced that bidding on the Olympics and building a stadium in Washington Park are good ways to spend the city's time and money. But for now, I'm a little put off by all the excited discussion about how we should go about getting the Olympic games when no one seems to have explained whether we should want to get them at all.


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