Chicago’s failed Olympics bid, 03 October 2009

2009/10/03

Being a resident of Chicago and someone who’s interested in the future prosperity of the city, it occurs to me that I should probably make a comment or two about the city’s recent (and failed) bid to bring in the 2016 Olympics. I am, in fact, of two minds about this, [1] so bear with me if this seems a bit contradictory.

On the positive side, there would certainly be a noticeable increase in economic activity as a result of the games, so this would be a welcome addition to the city. While the games themselves are a limited commodity, the infrastructure and facilities that need to be built for the various events would bolster the city’s economy for quite awhile prior to (and possibly even after) the event itself. For a city such as Chicago, the tourist angle will probably not be much affected by the games, as the city already has a notably high profile, though there may very well be an increase as a result of heightened awareness of the city and what it can offer. And, of course, it would give the city bragging rights. [2]

Unfortunately, there are also plenty of potentially negative effects to hosting the games, most of which seem to have been overlooked by supporters of the bid. As critics have been quick to point out, the cost of constructing a new Olympic complex are not insubstantial; while Chicago does have a number of extant athletic facilities, depending on the location of the Olympic complex itself, these may not suffice for the games. Building a new stadium for the games would be expensive, but also redundant for the city, once the games are over. Secondly, access to the complex would be a major issue, as Chicago already has a bit of a traffic problem; what will happen when the tens of thousands of Olympic fans, many of whom don’t know the city well, try to get to and from the games and their places of residence? Keep in mind, however, that any infrastructure built (or expanded) would be used primarily to accommodate the traffic from the games participants and spectators, and might not necessarily contribute much to the day-to-day needs of the city. More on that in a moment.

What is perhaps less obvious to most is that the Olympic complex may not have much use once the games are over; if so, it would represent a wasted investment. Having visited two Olympic cities in the past and seen their complexes, [3] what I noticed about both is that they were conspicuously devoid of local activity; the groups of which I was a part were tourists in these locations, but there did not appear to be many locals using the complexes. Certainly, some of the new construction could find future use, [4] but what of the facilities that will not engender future use? In particular, what of the shops and restaurants that would be built in such a complex? Would there be enough demand to sustain continued occupancy for these? What about the supporting facilities for the athletic activities (locker and shower facilities, training areas, etc.)? Perhaps, the neighborhoods around these facilities would be able to make use of these facilities after the games, but most of the neighborhoods in Chicago that have the space for the Olympic complex are also (somewhat predictably) rather sparsely populated. [4] This latter point implies that the Olympic complex would see little continued use after the games were over. If this is the case and the complex sees little sustained usage once the games are over, whatever supporting infrastructure that gets built to accommodate the needs of the spectators and athletes would also see little (if any) usage once the games are over. Such investments might ultimately prove to be less than ideal, especially if the city ends up spending more money on them than it receives from the games themselves.

So, I suppose my rather contradictory point is that I was a bit ambivalent about Chicago’s bid from the outset. Of course, I would’ve been excited if the city had won it’s bid, but now that we’ve lost it, I’m not entirely disappointed, either. Oh, and don’t get me started on the President’s last minute drive-by; I don’t even want to touch that little can of worms.

Notes:

[1]: Yeah, I know…that happens often. I suspect that this is a side effect of trying to see things from a wider perspective (or, in common parlance, the “Big Picture”).

[2]: Which, while having little tangible benefit, are still quite fun to have.

[3]: These would be Munich and Barcelona. Of course, I can’t speak for the other Olympic cities, but I would not be entirely surprised if the others befell a similar fate.

[4]: Chicago is a far less densely populated city than, say, NYC or Boston, but that said, most of the north side neighborhoods are effectively full; while there are always vacant lots to be had even in such neighborhoods, I am not aware of any that could fit a complex of the size needed for hosting the Olympic events. By contrast, there are large portions of the south side that are more or less entirely empty and could accommodate the complex, but since there are few people living in those areas currently, it stands to reason that there will be few there even after the games are over. Granted, it is possible that some migratory effect may occur in the wake of the games, but one cannot predict the outcome of this with any certainty.

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