How about a Gateway Cities Olympics?

Boston focus is far too narrow

EVEN NAYSAYERS BELIEVE the 2024 Olympic bid is a rare opportunity to generate fresh ideas about the future of the Commonwealth. For a productive conversation, a shared understanding of priorities is required. It will always be hard to generate consensus in a state with so much diversity, but if there is one issue on which there is general agreement, it is the urgent need to narrow the economic divide between Greater Boston and other regions of the state. With so much harmony on this point, it seems disjointed that the initial plan for the Games would only serve to further concentrate economic vitality in the Hub.

This Boston-centric approach – characterized by its sponsors as a walkable, transit-oriented Games – exemplifies how the city’s increasingly strong gravitation field perpetuates the problem. To his credit, Boston 2024 Chairman John Fish has been an exceptionally strong leader on the issue of regional equity. In a 2013 address, he drew attention to the state’s unbalanced focus on new-economy jobs primarily in the Boston area.

“The result has been limited growth throughout the rest of the Commonwealth and the middle class has been thrown aside,” Fish said. “We are fast becoming known as the un-commonwealth of Massachusetts.” When he assumed the presidency of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last year, he made the chamber’s role promoting prosperity for all of Massachusetts a central theme of his inaugural address.

In the quest to win the Olympics, Boston 2024 has fallen victim to the same habits as the state in its economic development pursuits. The allure of Boston’s assets are so strong one forgets that other regions of the state have much to offer.

Imagine the frustration for residents of New Bedford when they read about a sailing venue on Castle Island. New Bedford’s front door opens to Buzzards Bay, a water body whose steady winds have long made it a training ground for Olympic sailors. Locating the Olympic Yachting Center in New Bedford would be an opportunity to finally complete South Coast Rail (a long-promised infrastructure project festering the deep wounds of deferred regional equity investments) while showcasing a dynamic waterfront at the leading edge of the nation’s offshore wind industry.

Fortunately for New Bedford and the Commonwealth’s other Gateway Cities, legislative leaders are on their side. Senate President Stan Rosenberg, a Pioneer Valley stalwart, issued the alarm last week as did Speaker Robert DeLeo. (DeLeo hails from Revere, but his heart is with regional equity. He made it the centerpiece of a major economic development bill last session).

With the transition into office and a budget deficit to solve, Gov. Charlie Baker will need time to articulate a perspective on the Olympics, but given his campaign’s thoughtful focus on Gateway Cities, if he comes down in favor of the bid, it is likely that he will champion an approach that produces meaningful benefits for all of Massachusetts.

Political support is critical because the state’s unbalanced economic growth has tilted the balance of power in the business community. Boston 2024’s leadership is almost entirely composed of heavyweights from Boston-based companies. Outside of Boston, very few Fortune 500 businesses remain.

Regions beyond Boston must work urgently with their partners in the Legislature to reframe the Olympic debate. The way to do this is to adjust the “public funding only for infrastructure” principle.

Public funding for infrastructure is the right direction, but it should be public funding from the region reaping the long-term benefit. Expensive MBTA projects should get done with special taxes in communities serviced by the MBTA. This is consistent with how transit is financed in major cities all around the country.

Meet the Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

On the other hand, saying no to public funding for Olympic facilities is an orthodoxy that would lead to missed opportunities. If an Olympic facility can be retrofitted in ways that generate long-term benefit for the host community, then public subsidy should be on the table. In Boston, where Olympic facilities are unlikely to have transformative effects, this test presents a high bar. In many Gateway Cities, a smart approach to facilities could generate revitalization and, over time, pay dividends to Massachusetts taxpayers.

Boston 2024 gained an enormous talent when Rich Davey assumed the helm last week. The former transportation secretary brings goodwill with leaders across the state. Fresh from the transportation funding fight, he gets regional equity. Now he has an opportunity to lead a conversation with the potential to benefit all Massachusetts residents for generations to come.

Benjamin Forman is the executive director of MassINC’s Gateway Cities Innovation Institute.