Our Opinion: The promise and peril of Boston Games

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A Boston Olympics would pump billions of dollars into the economy, according to a report released last week. No surprise there. But the benefits outside Boston are unclear and the potential negatives significant. Unfortunately, no surprise there either.

Researchers at the UMass Donahue Institute concluded that the Summer Games, if awarded to Boston, would generate $4 billion in new construction and $5 billion in economic activity. Olympics do bring in money to communities, which must, of course, be balanced against the money flowing out in the preparation stages. The report acknowledges this and other negatives, which the Berkshires must consider more than any other region as the area of the state that realistically is least likely to see tangible benefits.

The analysis, commissioned by the Boston Foundation and the first in-depth assessment of the potential impact of the Summer Olympics, predicts that the monumental project could create as many as 4,000 construction jobs annually for six years. It is possible to imagine Petricca Industries and other Berkshire contractors participating and employing local workers.

The study estimates that tens of thousands of jobs could be created the year of the event. The vast majority of these would surely go to Boston-area residents, although all jobs and contact information should be posted on an Olympics website so everyone across the state could apply.

The Donahue study stated the obvious but it had to be said — the cost of modern day Olympics historically well exceed budget estimates. Whatever figure that organizers put down for a cost projection will be wrong, and unlike the recent Winter Olympics, there will be no Russian tyrant to open government coffers and shake down oligarchs for the billions of dollars in shortfalls.

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The International Olympic Committee will require Boston, as it does other cities, to promise to make up any shortfalls in the budget. In that eventuality, Boston, which as of now doesn't appear eager to share its games, will be looking around for help, and the rest of the state should grab its wallets. As the report noted, unplanned increases in the Olympic budget "...could directly put the public sector at risk of having to cover budgetary shortfalls."

Olympic organizers acknowledge that Boston cannot pull this off if Washington, D.C., does not pick up an estimated $1 billion in security costs — a figure that, like everything else, will climb. It is difficult to imagine a $1 billion-plus bill for a blue state Olympics breezing through the tea party House. If a Democrat is not in the White House in 2017 when the IOC makes its call for 2024 to push for the Massachusetts Games, it becomes all but impossible to imagine happening.

None of this is to say that the Summer Olympics can't work here. The IOC has finally begun to shift priorities and lower demands so Olympic Games can be put on less expensively. Sponsors and the television networks will provide considerable revenue. When all was said and done, the last three U.S. Olympics, including the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996, all ended up with operating surpluses.

But from a Berkshire perspective, the challenge is to get something of benefit from the Olympics, and failing that, avoid having to pay a share of the freight for something of no benefit. First District Congressman Richard Neal has floated the idea of matching state money spent on Olympic infrastructure with funding for projects elsewhere, such as an enhanced east-west rail link to the Berkshires. That would be a worthy tradeoff.

In a recent letter to the editor, Governor's Councilor Michael Albano, of Longmeadow, raised the specter of Boston's money-sucking Big Dig in the context of a Boston Olympics. That project, which costs this region plenty in terms of lost infrastructure funding and benefited it not a whit, is the cautionary tale going forward as the Olympic bid unfolds.


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