Olympics once-in-a-century opportunity

Mayor says we are in this to win

Remarks prepared for delivery to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

As I said last month, this isn’t Loon Mountain, it’s the city of Boston. But with 100 inches of snow in 30 days, we could have opened up our own ski resort.

In fact, I stand before you at the tail end—knock on wood—of the biggest snow operation in Boston’s history. I want to share some things you might not know about this monumental task.

  • 1 billion cubic feet of snow fell on Boston’s streets last month. That’s more than twice the amount of dirt moved during all 15 years of the Central Artery Tunnel Project.
  • We plowed 295,000 miles of roadway—roughly 12 trips around the earth.
  • We removed over 30,000 truckloads of snow from city streets.
  • We melted 50,000 tons of snow at our farms.
  • In addition, we took over 110,000 calls to the Mayor’s Hotline.
  • We closed the Boston Public Schools for 8 days, while keeping 14 community centers open for free childcare.
  • Together the Boston Police and Inspectional Services departments gave over 1,100 rides to nurses and emergency workers.
  • The Boston Fire Department answered over 7,500 calls—46% more than the same period last year.
  • Our homeless shelters have been open around the clock, offering daytime services and sheltering more than 600 guests each night.

I’m grateful to every single city worker and resident of Boston who contributed to this effort.

The truth is, it has been a very difficult winter for everyone who lives, works, and does business in our region. E.J. Graff of Brandeis University, writing in the New York Times, called it a “slow-motion natural disaster of historic proportions.” The city has applied to FEMA for help with costs related to the January blizzard. And we are working with the state to secure additional federal relief for the relentless series of storms that followed.

But the impact went far beyond the city’s budget. After we cleared the snow, it wasn’t just the pavement that was left exposed. We saw, in stark relief, some of the hardest challenges that confront us, as a city and a region. We saw how aging infrastructure and poor public transit slow us down. We saw how income inequality and housing insecurity leave people on the edge. And we saw just how deeply families depend on our schools.

Boston is growing stronger in many ways. But these long-term trends limit our potential and weaken our resilience. I planned to talk to you today about how we are innovating with data; how we are protecting our perfect bond rating; and how we are making permitting even easier. But I decided last week that this moment calls for a different kind of speech. Today I invite you—I challenge you—to join me in taking the long view. Let’s talk honestly about what it will take to meet those challenges. Let’s talk about the future of our city.

A thriving city needs a great transit system. A healthy city needs dynamic public space, diversified housing, and abundant opportunity. An innovative city is not afraid to change, grow, and take up a leadership role on the world stage. Above all, a great city should plan for the future with confidence and creativity.

We have the talent, the resources, and the heart to be that city. But we’ve seen it with the MBTA: business as usual doesn’t get us there. So I want to talk about an incredibly powerful tool we have for realizing a shared vision. I want to talk about Boston’s bid to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The conversation so far has been more heat than light. There’s a lot of confusion—about what the facts are, about how the process works, and who’s driving it. I want to take the time today to make my position perfectly clear. This bid is a once-in-a-century opportunity: to upgrade our infrastructure; to develop housing, commerce, and educational resources; to take new prominence on the world stage and attract transformative global investment. Ultimately, it’s an opportunity to envision and build together the next chapter in Boston’s history.

Let me explain how I arrived at this conviction. When I first heard about the Olympic bid, I was skeptical, even dismissive. I wanted to know how we would pay for such a massive undertaking. Since becoming mayor, I’ve learned the true depth of Boston’s long-term needs. I’ve come to believe it will take a new kind of collaboration—between every level of government and the private sector—to unlock our region’s full potential.

I’ve also learned more about Olympic financing. In other countries, governments bankroll Olympic bids and Olympic Games. That is not the case in the United States. Here, bids are privately funded. And Games have been fiscally sound.

Let me tell you about America’s Olympic legacy. The 1984 Games in Los Angeles produced a surplus that endowed the LA84 Foundation. It has dispersed close to a quarter-billion dollars for youth sports across Southern California. After the 1996 Games in Atlanta, the athletes’ village became dorms for public universities, and its Olympic Park has been a catalyst for downtown resurgence. In Salt Lake City, the 2002 Games left a $101 million surplus that transformed venues into training centers and public amenities, while investing in youth sports.

With Boston’s rich network of foundations, colleges, businesses, and neighborhoods, the opportunities are limitless: to leverage private resources, and craft a transformative legacy. We’ll protect the public purse and advance the public interest. We’ll insist that public venues end up in better shape than they were found. New construction will have fully financed legacy uses. And infrastructure upgrades will answer our city and our state’s greatest needs.

So make no mistake, we are in this to win: to bring the Olympic Games to Boston, along with the immense global investment and community benefits that come with it. But our bid will be a winner for Boston, even if we are not selected. And this is where I get excited. A smart planning process is something we can start right now. We have examples, from not too far away, of how this works. When New York City went for the 2012 Games, they didn’t get their Olympics. But they did get planning that brought to life huge stretches of blighted waterfront.

For more than half a century, neighbors pleaded for open space at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Nothing seemed to move the needle. But with an Olympic bid in play, they got their open space within a few short years. And they got much more. Brooklyn Bridge Park is now an award-winning destination. It has opened up 1.3 miles of historic waterfront.

Let’s go back to something Bostonians have been asking for, for half a century: a reliable, efficient transit system. It’s not just a convenience. At stake is the health of our economy. As everyone in this room knows, Boston is the economic engine of New England. The region relies on half a million workers getting in and out of our city every day.

Many of you have been regular riders of the T or the Commuter Rail. And many of you are seeing right now what happens to your workforce when these systems fail. We can’t afford to keep waiting for delayed trains. $6.3 billion of total development is under construction in Boston right now. And we are going to build middle-class homes along our subway lines. So tinkering around the edges won’t be enough. Our transit system needs bold investment and deep rebuilding.

I know many are asking: if these investments are so necessary, why can’t we just make them happen? I served in the State Legislature for 16 years. There were many attempts at reform. But the MBTA was never put in a position to succeed.

Business-as-usual hasn’t worked. So it’s time we have an honest conversation about transit. It’s time to work collectively on a challenge that affects all of us. I pledge to work with the Baker Administration, the Legislature, and neighboring mayors, to finally fix this 110-year-old system.

Those who say the MBTA’s failure is proof we can’t handle an Olympic Games have it exactly backwards. The T shows why an Olympic bid is such an opportunity. We need a catalyst to bring us together, keep us on track, and push solutions forward. We need a planning process with a timeline. That’s what the Olympic bid provides.

I know there are good people in Boston who worry that the Olympics are a distraction. I say to them: Boston’s values and Boston’s vision are the very essence of our bid. Already, we have rewritten the language of the standard bid agreement. It won’t be the last time we put our city’s stamp on this process.

Boston is a city devoted to fairness, innovation, and community. Our unique identity is the very reason we were chosen by the United States Olympic Committee. The I.O.C. last year put out a call for a new kind of affordable, sustainable Olympics. Boston has stepped forward with the first model. It has received worldwide attention. The Olympic movement is reflecting the light of our values and our talents. Imagine: on the verge of our 400thh anniversary, Boston restores and re-invents the Olympic Games, for the world. I believe in Boston with all my heart—I know we can do this.

In many ways, we are already an Olympic city. We are the torch-bearer for the modern Marathon in the United States. And our Olympic history flows from our unique culture of high ideals and big hearts.

In the 19th century, Boston was called the “Athens of America.” We nurtured the ideals that led to the modern Olympic movement. Meanwhile, many of our Olympic stars came out of the scrappy immigrant neighborhoods that still fuel our city’s fire. James Brendan Connolly of South Boston overcame poverty to win the very first gold medal of the modern Olympics—the triple-jump in Athens in 1896. You can see his statue in Moakley Park: just steps from where our Olympic Village might sit. Harold Connolly of Brighton overcame a physical handicap to win gold in the hammer-throw in Melbourne in 1956. His statue stands outside the Taft Middle School in Brighton, not far from the college campuses where future medals could be won.

And don’t forget the kids from Charlestown, Winthrop, and Marshfield who made a miracle happen on ice in Lake Placid. As their coach Herb Brooks said, “great moments are born from great opportunity.”

We have a great opportunity before us. Reaching for the Olympics runs deeper than infrastructure, deeper than innovation. It’s about the kind of city we are, and the kind of city we want to be. Let me tell you what an Olympic Boston looks like to me. Picture heroes like Mike Eruzione, Aly Raisman, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and Cheri Blauwet carrying the Olympic torch into Boston, on the streets that we’ve rebuilt and revitalized. Picture them passing that torch to a high school student who won a national science fair because of a new, state-of-the-art facility in the Boston Public Schools. Then to a business owner who got her start at the Roxbury Innovation Center we are opening this year in Dudley Square. To someone who turned his life around with the help of our new Office of Recovery Services. And to a military veteran who started a physical fitness campaign in our historic park system.

I leave it to you to debate who should light our Olympic flame. But imagine the pride we will feel in those moments. Imagine the story they will tell about Boston to the world. Imagine the story they will tell to our children.

And consider, as well, if two years from now, we don’t get the Games. Instead, we are upgrading the MBTA, from Mattapan to Swampscott. We are freeing up land to build new homes for families; new workplaces with good jobs; new parks and new schools. We are protecting and investing in Boston Harbor and the Emerald Necklace like never before. In sum, we will be creating the first new vision for Boston in half a century.

That’s the opportunity we have before us. Let’s seize it.

Whether you oppose or support the Games; whether you are a business leader or a community activist; whether you live in Boston or work here: we can all agree that having a two-year, public conversation about the future of our great city is a good thing.

So I call on everyone in this room-and beyond it-to engage this process constructively. Bring your values and your vision for our city. Let’s make Boston a truly global Hub. Let’s make Boston a city where dreams come true. Let’s make Boston a city where children step out their front doors and find the world waiting for them.

Those young people who are the heart of our city’s future? The schools that serve them are about to enter a new era. Last night the Boston School Committee voted to recommend Dr. Tommy Chang as the next superintendent of the Boston Public Schools. Dr. Chang is a rising star. He has a record of taking on the toughest challenges and succeeding. As an immigrant who learned English in school, his own life is a testament to the transforming power of education. As Superintendent of the Intensive Support and Innovation Center in Los Angeles, he’s led 130 schools in the nation’s second-largest district. He believes in empowering school leaders, teachers, and parents. And he is committed to meeting the needs of every student. I look forward to finalizing his appointment.

I want to thank Chair Michael O’Neill and the members of the Boston School Committee. And I want to thank Bob Gallery, Dr. Hardin Coleman, and the search committee for their tireless work. The committee drew together parents and teachers, experts and leaders—diverse in every way. Members shared one thing in common: a commitment to putting students first, and making Boston a beacon of equity and excellence in public education.

They held the most open and democratic search process this city has ever seen for an appointed official. They spent a year listening to voices from across the community that guided their work. Any one of their finalists would make a strong superintendent. And each of these leaders described passionately the opportunity for greatness they see in Boston’s schools.

We’ve put in place the building-blocks for success. We’ve assembled a School Committee that understands the needs of every student. We are opening BPS headquarters in the spectacular Bruce Bolling Building in Roxbury. Our extended school day begins this fall. And with a 10-year facilities plan launching this year, as Bob Gallery recently said, the Boston Public Schools are “poised for greatness.”

Reaching new heights will take a new spirit of collaboration and commitment. Beliefs about education in Boston run deep and strong. In the birthplace of American public schools, we wouldn’t have it any other way. But now is a time to find common ground. I call on everyone: parents, teachers, and principals; universities, nonprofits, and business leaders: stand together; stand with our new school leadership, and stand behind our students. They are depending on us. And our future depends on them.

I want to close by offering one concrete way everyone in this room can help. Last year I made it a priority to expand the Summer Jobs program. We got more than 10,000 young people into the workplace. And we introduced vital enrichments such as financial literacy training. This year we’re recruiting more employers, in more industries. You can email summerjobs@boston.gov for more information. But we’ll be making cold calls, so don’t be surprised if you hear from me first.

I’m going to ask you to commit to our city’s future. Whether that future holds another winter for the ages, or a Summer Olympic Games, Boston is going to keep moving forward and keep breaking new ground. Now is a challenging and an exciting time—a time to make history. I invite you, and everyone who lives and works in our great city, to join me in dreaming big dreams and building our future together.

Meet the Author

Thank you, and God Bless the city of Boston.

Martin Walsh is the mayor of Boston.