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Olympics Loss Forces Chicago to Rethink City Plans

Wed October 14, 2009 - Midwest Edition
Deanna Bellandi

CHICAGO (AP) Chicago’s dream of an Olympics-sized stimulus was dashed when the 2016 Summer Games were awarded to Rio de Janeiro, and the loss amounts to more than a bruised ego for the third-largest U.S. city.

Officials can no longer trumpet the $13.7 billion citywide economic impact local Olympics organizers estimated would come of games-related jobs, construction, tourism and transportation. They’ll also have no excuse for distraction in a city grappling with a mounting deficit and violence that has led to dozens of deaths of city teens each year.

The loss marked a stunning defeat for Mayor Richard M. Daley, who spent three years working to sell Chicago residents on the games, often highlighting job creation and a financial influx that would help the city emerge from a recessionary slump.

“I just know so many construction workers who thought their next seven years were going to be full of work,” said Jane Zefran, a semi-retired Chicago resident. “Now, heavens only knows what will happen. It’s such a shame.”

Fresh off a plane from the International Olympic Committee meeting in Copenhagen, Daley said people shouldn’t be disheartened about Chicago’s future because the city lost the 2016 Summer Games.

“We have a great city,” he said. “These are great people. We have a future just as bright as anyone else.”

People around town seem doubtful the loss will scar Daley as he mulls whether to seek a seventh term in 2011 — at which point he will have 22 years in office and become Chicago’s longest-serving mayor.

“I don’t think he will be looked at like a loser,” said Angela Byrd, a teacher’s assistant from Chicago.

Still, a recent Chicago Tribune/WGN poll showed Daley’s approval rating had sunk to 35 percent in part because of skepticism over the Olympics and an unpopular deal to lease city parking meters to a private contractor. And the mayor was in Copenhagen as an unwelcome spotlight again shone on his city after a 16-year-old honors student was beaten to death while walking to a bus stop after school.

Back at home, one of the first big issues the mayor will have to deal with comes when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan meet with school officials, students and residents to talk about chronic school violence.

Daley is likely to be asked yet again what can be done to address the issue.

As for jobs, at least some of the anticipated construction still should materialize because the city has pledged to move forward with redeveloping the site that would have been the Olympic Village. The plan calls for transforming the site of a shuttered South Side hospital complex into a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood. City contracts already are out for some demolition work and the city plans to sell the land to private developers.

But without the games, many improvements to infrastructure, like public transportation, won’t see the speed-up of federal assistance the city expected from a successful Olympics bid.

“Unfortunately, not having the bid means that many of those projects will take much longer to complete, but they are still on the table and we will move forward,” said Chicago Alderman Brendan Reilly.

Advocates hoped the Olympics would provide the leverage needed in lobbying for funds to overhaul aging transportation systems that support trains on old tracks and crowded roads that need work.

“It doesn’t diminish the need to figure out how to fund this stuff, but it is disappointing,” said Barry Matchett of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Chicago-based advocacy group.

The Chicago Transit Authority’s elevated subway system is perhaps the most troubled. Some of the worst track has recently been fixed, partly drawing on federal stimulus funds. But some stretches of the more than 240-mi. (386-km)-network remain so shoddy that trains meant to travel more than 50 mph (80 kmh) must slow to the pace of a horse at a trot.

Chicago’s Metra commuter trains are better off, but hardly trouble free. The International Olympic Committee’s evaluation report had singled out Metra, saying it would be hard-pressed to handle what would be more than double the peak commuter traffic during the games.

Alderman Tom Tunney said the city must quickly move on and refocus efforts on other growth areas like green technology, manufacturing and its reputation as the country’s freight rail hub.

“In this economy there is no time for sulking. No, no, no, no, no,” he said.

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