Yesterday, I attended a talk given by Erin Murphy, Executive Vice President of Boston 2024, and Doug Rubin, the Founding Partner of Northwind Strategies and a co-chair of the Public Relations and Marketing Committee for Boston 2024. The talk–entitled “Urban Sports and the Boston Olympic Bid” was a part of the Spring 2015 Myra Kraft Open Classroom series “The 21st Century City: Challenges and Opportunities” at the Northeastern University School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. You can watch the video here or read through my live-tweeting of the event here, but I wanted to focus on the questions I asked them in the Q&A session and the evasive answers I got.
As I am wont to do, I asked a multi-part question.
First, I wanted to build on a question from another audience member. One woman–one of the first to ask a question–asked about why this whole process was done in secret last year and asked how long Boston 2024 had been in operations. Doug Rubin responded by talking about how the Boston 2024 idea started with a “dream” from two young people (mostly true) and then about how the state legislature created a feasibility commission, which formed at the end of 2013 and issued a report at the end of February 2013. He spoke of this as an open, engaged public process, acting as though the hearings in the state legislature for the feasibility commission were sufficient public engagement.
In a follow-up (which was probably almost an hour after that original exchange), I noted that Rubin’s description of the process overstated its openness and transparency. The feasibility commission was filled with real estate/construction CEOs, tourism industry CEOs, and political operatives. Massachusetts had, at the time, at least three academics who specialized in studying the planning and economics of the Olympics (Andrew Zimbalist at Smith, Victor Matheson at Holy Cross, and Judith Grant Long at Harvard–but since at U. Michigan). None of them were given a role in this commission. After the commission completed its report, there was no form of public process whatsoever until after the bid was accepted by the USOC. No town halls. No City Council hearings. No community meetings. Nothing. It was developed behind closed doors by the elites of the Boston 2024 Executive Committee.
Second, I wanted to inquire about the issue of “public funds.” I asked what their working definition of “public funds” is when they talk about “no public funds” for the construction of venues. Public funding should not just mean appropriations. Discounted sale/leasing of municipal or state land, tax credits, tax exemptions, tax abatements, etc., are all public funding in disguise. Moreover, given Boston 2024’s “no public funds” pledge, I wanted to know if they would support a “yes” vote on Josh Zakim’s proposed ballot measure for this fall and Evan Falchuk’s proposed ballot measure for next year.
Third, I wanted to follow up on a point made by Doug Rubin in response to an earlier questioner. Doug Rubin spoke of how Boston 2024 and Andrew Zimbalist are not really as far apart as people might think, given that they–according to Rubin–are close to fulfilling the conditions that made LA 84 and Barcelona 92 comparative successes. With LA 84, that refers to having a fully privately funded Olympics with an emphasis on using existing facilities. With Barcelona 92, that refers to having a long-term development plan for the city that the Olympics can be built into.
Both claims were preposterous, but I chose to challenge Rubin on his comparison of Boston 2024 and Barcelona 92. I noted that Barcelona had begun its urban planning well over a decade before bidding for the Olympics. The Olympic bid was thus fit into the plan, rather than vice versa. Boston has no such long-term development plan. The closest thing to one would be the Go Boston 2030 initiative, but that is privately funded by a foundation–the Barr Foundation–with funding ties to Boston 2024.
Now what did I get in terms of answers?
In response to my first question, Doug Rubin repeated Boston 2024’s line that having public meetings would have damaged the”competitiveness” of the bid. I’d prefer democracy over competitiveness.
In response to my second question, I got no answer at all. Doug Rubin began talking about Boston 2024’s own referendum and how they’re reaching out to other groups (e.g., No Boston Olympics) to get a referendum text that works for everyone. But I had asked a simple yes or no question. I got neither a yes nor a no.
At least the referendum part of the second question was acknowledged. The same cannot be said about my question about the definition of public funds. That was completely ignored.
Regarding my point about the Barcelona Games, Erin Murphy noted that she had no idea of how long Barcelona had been planning before the bid, and then went on to talk about how magical it was to talk to the people who had planned the Barcelona 92 Games, how that inspired them, how they’re consulting with them, etc. I think it’s great that they had fun conversations, but that doesn’t address the fact that Boston does not have a pre-existing long-term development plan. To listen to Olympic boosters, the Olympics is the plan. But should we really be orienting our city and state planning around a two-and-a-half week event?