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Questions linger on Boston’s bid to host Olympics

Activists, elected officials call for more transparency

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO

Even after a public presentation by Boston 2024, the private group organizing Boston’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics Summer Games, not everyone is convinced the process is sufficiently transparent.

“I have more questions now than I did before that are not answered,” said state Rep. Liz Malia. “I’m more convinced than ever that we need a very transparent process. Communities involved don’t seem to have been on the receiving end of any information.”

Malia, who had declined to comment for an earlier Banner story, preferring to wait until after the Boston 2024 presentation, said she is firmly in the skeptics’ corner at this point.

A call for voter weigh-in

Evan Falchuk, 2014 gubernatorial candidate and founder of the new United Independent Party, is calling for a statewide referendum on the Olympic bid that would appear on ballot in November 2016. If not an up-or-down vote on the bid itself, the ballot question would allow voters to forbid the use of state tax money for the Olympics.

“The Olympic backers have been saying this isn’t going to use taxpayer money,” said Falchuk in a phone interview this week. “I and a lot of other people are not sure that’s really going to happen.”

After attending a Jan. 21 presentation in Boston by the Boston 2024 group, Falchuk issued a list of still-unanswered questions, among them, How much will this cost taxpayers; Why hasn’t the group released the actual presentation they made to the U.S. Olympic Committee; Do the Olympics make money; and, How does an unelected group get to set the agenda for our elected representatives and all Massachusetts voters?

It’s not about the merit of the games, he said, but rather the lack of disclosure and public process.

“I’m a sports fan. I like the Olympics,” he told the Banner. “This is about the democratic process. It’s difficult for me to understand when they say, ‘We want to do this in a democracy, we just don’t want voting to happen.’”

Falchuk noted that normally, when local economic development is proposed, there’s a large degree of local control and conversation along the way.

“It’s remarkable that with this, they’re not doing any of that,” he said. “The process that has existed so long is being completely trampled.”

A Jan. 20 MassINC/WBUR poll found that while 51 percent of Greater Boston residents support the Olympic bid, three-quarters of respondents said residents of Boston and surrounding towns should be able to vote on the decision to host the games. A majority of residents in the Greater Boston area thought taxpayer funds would be required, despite organizers’ statements that the event would rely on private funding.

Newmarket displacement?

Early design renderings show the games could take place in numerous existing and new venues in and around Boston, including some in Roxbury.

The Banner previously reported on concerns by Franklin Park advocates that if the park is tapped as an equestrian events site, the surrounding community might lose access to the park during advance preparations as well as during the actual events.

The siting of a new stadium at Widett Circle (redubbed “Midtown” in the proposal documents) could impact Roxbury’s Newmarket area. Sue Sullivan, executive director of the Newmarket Business Association, expressed frustration that her business members had not been involved in the plans, even though a new stadium could displace area establishments, including the New Boston Food Market, which includes 21 businesses employing 750 people.

“Looking at their plans, they’re taking a lot of area where there are existing businesses,” Sullivan said. “We really need to be a part of the process, and to this date, we really haven’t been. They have not engaged the business community or the business associations.”

Sullivan bristled at portrayals she has seen of the area eyed for the stadium as “deserted.” Reports and statements that businesses in the New Boston Food Market have been looking to sell or move are “just not true,” she said.

Boston City Councilor-at-Large Michelle Wu has urged Boston 2024 and government leaders to provide full transparency and accountability.

In an op-ed piece for WGBH News, Wu wrote, “Meaningful conversation requires informed participation, with full access to budgets and plans, and full knowledge of interested parties that stand to benefit.” She called for an approval process of city council votes in each city or town affected, and for the nonprofit Boston 2024 to be held to stringent standards of scrutiny regarding finances and donor lists.

Reached by phone this week, Wu spoke of ensuring that if the Olympics come to Boston, local businesses feel the effects in a positive way.

“My research tells me that small businesses [in a host city] suffer during the time the games are there,” she said, “whether it’s because people leave town, or traffic, or because contracts are already spoken for. There a lot of opportunities along the way. There is a tremendous amount of talent here, but it’s a matter of connecting the dots and keeping local benefit as a top priority.”

Even after the Boston 2024 presentation, Wu feels there is still much the public needs to see.

“Transparency needs to be one of the top priorities moving forward,” she said, “not only about the venues and details, but making sure the process pieces are available to the public as well. For instance, who will get procurement contracts? Local residents know best what the impact would be.”

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