In Chicago, Olympic Opponents Organize

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 29, 2009

CHICAGO -- When International Olympic Committee officials land in Chicago for an evaluation visit on Thursday, city leaders hope the picturesque lakefront parks, historic downtown buildings and a diverse, enthusiastic population will impress them enough to win the 2016 Summer Games.

But while the city has been repaving roads, cleaning up parks and getting support from its most famous resident, President Obama, protests are planned by residents who fear the Games could leave Chicago in debt, displace poor people, destroy historic buildings, tear up parks, disturb migratory birds and even ruin summer yachting plans.

An organization called No Games Chicago, which has drawn sizable crowds to public meetings and other events, will protest outside the bid committee's office and hold a "Bike Ride Against the Games." A separate group of community and labor organizations threatened to protest unless leaders of the city and Chicago 2016, the group of civic and business leaders developing the bid, provided more community benefits.

Supporters of the Olympic effort tried to satisfy some of those concerns last week, when Chicago 2016 finalized a memorandum of understanding promising affordable housing, construction jobs for locals and contracts for female- and minority-owned firms. The City Council's finance committee passed a similar ordinance. Though it didn't go as far as some had hoped, Councilwoman Toni Preckwinkle called it a victory.

"I'm grateful we came a long way down this road," she said. "It behooves advocates to savor their victories and focus on the benefits rather than the things they didn't get."

But some remain skeptical that the agreements will be honored, especially because the full City Council won't vote on the ordinance until late April.

"As community groups, it's hard for us to trust the outcome, because we played by the rules and we were told we'd have something signed before the IOC visit," said Jay Travis, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. "We're being told just to wait until they leave, just have faith. But our faith has been strained."

Chicago 2016 spokesman Patrick Sandusky said the Olympics would have immediate and long-term benefits for residents, creating investment and jobs and furthering the city's image as an international destination. Backers estimate the Games would create $22.5 billion in economic activity from 2011 through 2021.

"It will bring Chicago to the global stage and let the world see the city in a way they haven't before," he said. "It will impact the way youth participate in sports in the city, it will create jobs, and it will have lasting benefits for communities."

Obama has been a big booster for the Games, going so far as to muse about wanting to walk to the opening ceremonies near the end of his second term at a new stadium that would be built in Washington Park, blocks from his Hyde Park home.

Obama taped a message for IOC officials that was played at a meeting in Istanbul in November, and city officials hope he will make a personal appearance in Copenhagen in October, when the final decision will be made. The city's bid book features a full-page photo of Obama's election-night rally in Grant Park, and city leaders hope the successful handling of that event will impress the IOC.

Chicago has projected that the Games would cost $3.3 billion in operating expenses and $1 billion more in infrastructure, lower estimates than those of Madrid, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro, the other finalists.

Officials say all funding would be through private investment, though the city has promised $500 million in guarantees for operating cost overruns and about $45 million worth of services. Many opponents are convinced the city would be forced to kick in more money.

Both Vancouver and London, hosts of the 2010 Winter and 2012 Summer Olympics, are spending hundreds of millions on Olympic Village construction after private developers were unable to because of the credit crisis. Vancouver officials had initially promised only $30 million in government funding.

"Despite the mayor's claims that the taxpayer will not pay a dime, we don't believe him," said No Games spokesman Tom Tresser, an actor and college instructor. "Chicago is notorious for mammoth construction project overruns, and we have no doubt this would turn into the biggest boondoggle in city history."

A DePaul University study of past Olympics found mixed long-term benefits for host cities. Barcelona used the 1992 Olympics to successfully revitalize parts of its city, while the 1996 Games meant debt and distress for Atlanta, partly because of technology and transportation problems and a bombing at Centennial Olympic Park.

"It's very difficult to study what happened in previous Games to predict what would happen in Chicago," said study co-author Stephen Alexander.

The IOC considers local support in its decision, and Chicago's rivals have also faced opposition. In Tokyo, residents are afraid the Games will cost too much, cause severe traffic and displace a fish market.

A study commissioned by Chicago 2016 found public support at 77 percent, and independent polls also have found a majority of residents in favor of hosting the Olympics.

But the city's planning process was widely criticized by residents and councilmen for being secretive and not incorporating public input. In February, Chicago 2016 responded by tripling the size of its outreach committee to more than 60 members and included critics.

Though gentrification and city spending are the major concerns, there is also opposition on other fronts.

The group Preservation Chicago fears the demolition of the historic Meigs Field lakefront airport terminal and parts of the shuttered Michael Reese Hospital, the planned site of the Olympic Village.

Others are upset their parks would be taken over for years. Washington Park is known for African American family reunions and long-standing cricket matches among Indian immigrants.

"They call it a temporary stadium, but when you're housing 80,000 people, how temporary can that be?" asked Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago.

Alexander said opposition in potential host cities is common, though Chicago opponents seem "more aggressive" and better organized than most. He noted that IOC rules prevented much disclosure before the bid was submitted in February.

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