Olympics chief Fish vows to move forward, 2024 backers dispute talk of back-up cities

The Relay: New weekly newsletter on Boston 2024 starts today. Click to sign up.The Relay: New weekly newsletter on Boston 2024 starts today. Click to sign up.John Fish, the Boston 2024 chairman who has come under fire in recent weeks, made an impassioned appeal for support for Boston’s bid for the Summer Olympic Games to leading members of the business community on Wednesday morning – the day after a report in the Wall Street Journal that the US Olympic Committee had reached out to Los Angeles and San Francisco as possible replacements should public support for Boston’s remain on the negative side of polls and other indicators. Both the USOC and Boston 2024's Rich Davey denied there was any such maneuvering.

Over the last three months, public support for the Games in the Boston metro area has dipped significantly in the polls: In January, slightly more than 50 percent supported the bid; in a WBUR survey taken last month, the number on the support side had sunk to 36 percent. The Journal story cited the sinking poll numbers as the USOC’s reason for reaching out to other cities.

In a roughly 25-minute speech followed by 35 minutes of Q&A at the Northeastern University CEO Breakfast Forum, Fish took up familiar talking points about the power of the Games and their effect on Boston’s legacy, but he also ventured into new details about what he saw as the Games’ help in growing a middle class and expanding the city’s and the state’s transportation infrastructure. And he made a call for Boston to hire an independent analyst to study 2024’s books every month.

Fish said the Games will act as a “catalyst” for a “long-term, cross-regional transportation strategy,” striking notes about the Olympics’ benefit to the entire state. He said the Olympics could be seen as the “Commonwealth Games,” with events being hosted in Lowell, Springfield, Buzzards Bay, and Holyoke, adding that preliminary events could be spread out even farther: Baseball at Wrigley Field in Chicago, soccer at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, or basketball at Madison Square Garden.

Fish, who did not attend a community meeting in Allston-Brighton on Tuesday night where questions were raised about affordable housing and income inequality, touched on both Wednesday morning, saying that investment in transportation in new areas in the state could unlock potential and create a stronger middle class. Later, he said once again that the Boston 2024 bid is not reliant upon any additional transportation funding or upgrades beyond those already in the state’s pipeline: new Red and Orange Line cars and an extended Green Line.

In response to a question from the audience, Fish admitted that two major aspects of the bid expose the city of Boston to financial risk: Widett Circle and the Athletes Village. He added that the Olympics’ public-private partnership with the state, which, according to bid documents, would help 2024 acquire both parcels of land, “can ensure that we can provide guarantees to the bonds and insure the risk associated with each one of those venues.”

Boston 2024 has stated they have taken out an insurance policy to protect the city’s $25 million liability with the USOC should the city decide to pull out of the Games. Should Boston win the 2024 bid, that penalty increases to $100 million. At Tuesday night’s meeting, 2024’s VP of external affairs, Nikko Mendoza said that insurance policy has not yet been purchased.

As to keeping track of the money, Fish said, “We would hope that the city would bring in an independent consultant and review our books and work with us on a monthly basis and every quarter, potentially, issue a report.” He continued: “By the time we finish to get ready for the vote on the referendum, they can issue a summary report from an independent third party that documents the fiscal responsibility that has been underwritten for the Games themselves so we don’t put the full faith and credit of our city and our commonwealth and our taxpayers on the line in a foolish way.”

City Hall indicated support for the independent analysis: “Mayor Walsh has been discussing establishing an Office of Olympic Accountability at City Hall with Boston 2024 in the recent weeks and he is pleased that John Fish is on board,” Walsh’s spokesperson Laura Oggeri said in a statement.

As news of the Journal report was spreading on Tuesday afternoon, representatives of Boston 2024 were preparing for the private group’s third community meeting, this one in Allston-Brighton at the Harvard Business School Tuesday night.

Standing outside the Business School’s Burden Hall, Doug Rubin, a spokesperson for 2024, set out to knock down the report, saying, “Our focus isn’t on any of the rumors out there; we know it’s a competitive process. Our focus is on the communities.”

At the meeting Tuesday night, which lasted almost four hours, one of Boston 2024’s mainstays, the architect David Manfredi, who is doing work for 2024 pro-bono, the group’s VP for external affairs and community relations, Nikko Mendoza, and two-time Paralympian Joe Walsh took up the cause before several hundred citizens, many of whom had questions to ask. But first they conceded that Boston 2024 had made mistakes during the early parts of the bid process.

“We did not get our community process right during the first phase of this process,” Mendoza told the gathering. “We wanted to be early and often. We got the often part right, but we did not get the early part right."

In an interview before the meeting, Manfredi told the Reporter that the next steps will be about rendering a viable legacy for Boston from the Olympics effort.

“Clearly a big part of it is really understanding what the city of Boston, what the mayor, what the Boston Redevelopment Authority, what all the electeds believe is the appropriate legacy,” he said. “Boston 2024 is committed to legacy. It doesn’t have to be the legacy that was proposed back in December. If it doesn’t have a legacy, there’s no point in having the Games.”

John FitzGerald, the city's liaison between City Hall and Boston 2024 who moderated the session, took care to note that the meeting, like all the others, are meant to be part of a listening process for the city and Boston 2024 as a means of crafting “a better bid” rather than a way of answering every question and showing immediate results.

During the meeting, few new details emerged. Concerns were raised about housing and transportation issues. While Manfredi, Mendoza, Walsh, and FitzGerald never really addressed the Games’ legacy for Allston-Brighton, they fielded questions about the $9.1 billion budget, caught flak for bungling the outreach process from the beginning, and were pushed about an upgrade to the transit system. In answering a question about rising sea levels, Manfredi noted that development at Widett Circle would be above sea level to ensure the area will weather Boston’s encroaching harbor waters.

FitzGerald said there will be a second round of public sessions to vet an updated bid. “This is only our third meeting, but this will get better,” he told the 30 or so people who stayed until the end of the meeting. “I do agree that the public process is to the public benefit and we’ll continue to abide by that."

Boston 2024’s John Fish and Rich Davey did not attend the meeting, nor did Mayor Martin Walsh, who is not scheduled to attend any of the meetings, Fitzgerald said.

This article has been updated to clarify that the city of Boston will be fined $100 million should the city withdraw its bid for the Games after being officially selected as the host city in 2017, not once the bid is submitted this fall, as initially stated.

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