August 31, 2016

Olympics Are Out, But Not Big Ideas

As you well know from listening to long-gone Mayor Jean Drapeau of Montreal, the Olympic Games can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby.  There have been breakthroughs in medical science since the Mayor promoted the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

Calgary, Sarajevo, Beijing, Barcelona, Seoul, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City appear to be on a short list of cities which made money on the games.  Vancouver’s costs are bundled up with a billion dollars in security, 2.5 billion in transport projects, 900 million for a new convention centre and more than 500 million in spending by the city.  So, who knows?

These ancillary costs skew the accounting.  But they’re also one of the reasons to bid for the games.  A big event in the life of a city is a good reason to improve transport, housing, parks and other amenities. It’s just like a big event in your home life.  Company’s coming, so let’s spruce up.

In the case of Montreal, there was also a political goal.  Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis apparently said that Expo 67 would keep separatism at bay for a decade, and the ’76 Olympics would so the same for another decade.  After that it was up to others to deal with.

Toronto’s decision to suspend bidding for the Olympics after almost 50 years of on and off-again trying, may be a model for other cities.  In the 1960s, holding the games was a great idea.  Toronto needed a new stadium and other amenities—and to be put on the map.

Fifty years later, the calculations are more complex.  That new stadium or other sports facilities can cost up to a billion dollars.  This becomes a subsidy to professional sports team owners who make their money on boxes, parking, and advertising.  With only eight NFL home games a year, it turns out to be pretty expensive per game.  Very few other events need a stadium as big as will accommodate the NFL, and there are fewer than a dozen organizations who can hold conventions that will fill it.  

In terms of getting on the map, the landscape has changed there as well.  Mayor Jean Drapeau famously sat in the audience of the old Ed Sullivan variety show so that Ed would introduce him to the network TV audience.  Today, like Mayor Nenshi of Calgary, a mayor sometimes vaults into office via social media and manages a big event, like the Calgary flood in the same way.    

So, publicity and amenities are not as strong a draw as they used to be.  But there’s one more issue—terrorism.  Notoriety makes you a target and so does infrastructure.  Leaving aside secondary targets and targets of opportunity, few people will attack an unknown location, one with few bystanders or a mundane piece of infrastructure.  

It may be that rotating the Olympic games through a number of recent host cities which have facilities and a security plan is the route to go.

But, how to push civic projects ahead without the expense, uncertainty and potential danger of the games?    

If the Olympics are out as a big idea, what’s another one?  How about a public communication campaign and then civic goal of creating affordable housing, ending homelessness, reducing commute times, expanding parkland, or improving resiliency—a city’s ability to withstand a weather event or other emergency.  These aren’t as sexy as the Olympics, but the right mayor can help make these issues a civic priority, a source of pride and perhaps even fun.   

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