MORE

Let the Games Begin

The flock of downtown boosters seemed politely agreeable, at least judging from the show of hands. "How many of you," auto dealer George DeMontrond III had asked, "feel it would be extremely important to have the Olympics [in Houston]?" After furtive sideways glances to assess the trend, most paused from their boxed lunches to register yes votes. "That's the reaction I'm getting," continued DeMontrond, who is fronting the city's efforts to land the 2012 Olympic Games. "It's amazing how much spirit we have."

For the better part of an hour, DeMontrond regaled the crowd with a series of statements that would have made a ten-dollar whore blush: "Our local and regional transportation infrastructure is second to none," he deadpanned without explanation. As for the searing summer heat, which might wilt a selection committee's enthusiasm for Houston's bid, DeMontrond proclaimed that "in a perverse sort of way, Houston's weather is our biggest asset."

Though the city will be jockeying with seven others across the country for the right to represent the United States in the global competition for the 2012 games, DeMontrond feels good about the odds. We're one of only three or four viable entries in the national race, he told the assemblage, and if we get the nod from the U.S. Olympic Committee, he'll "personally guarantee" that Houston will win the ultimate bidding war. "This is not a pipe dream!"

In a perverse sort of way, he may be right. Although Houston's effort has serious flaws, the other bidders appear to face tough problems of their own. Each city must address 19 "themes" in its bid application, including finances, facilities, public support and transportation, and none of the rivals has the upper hand on a majority. Nor is it clear exactly which themes USOC will consider most important, as the selection process is both subjective and evolving.

To give it an edge, the local bid team, formally known as the Houston 2012 Foundation, has hired an $8,000-a-month consultant -- Jack Kelly, a consummate insider who has served on several key USOC committees, has extensive experience with the bidding process and is a lifetime member of what he reverently calls the "Olympic family." His dad was a former Olympic canoeist who paddled his way to a past USOC presidency.

And Houston has one thing going for it that the others don't, at least for now: taxpayer money. The International Olympic Committee and USOC have suggested that the level of public support -- in the form of financial guarantees -- will weigh critically in their final decisions. City Council has already committed $1.5 million to the bid, not including the salaries of two city employees who are working on it. And the Texas Legislature is about to pass a bill that will guarantee city and state tax funds to cover any losses the games might incur (see "Playing the Games," page 18).

According to DeMontrond, if Houston somehow lands the big fish, nothing but good will come of it. Holding up Atlanta, the 1996 host, as the model, he recites from a well-rehearsed list: Houston would move from the ranks of garden-variety international cities to become a world-class international city (or, as Mayor Lee Brown is fond of saying, a premier world-class city). We'd get lots of new buildings, roads and sports venues for free. Hosting the Olympics would yield $3.5 billion in returns, a figure he claims is conservative. And though the tab may well exceed $1.5 billion, it probably won't cost the taxpayers a dime. "It's an economic no-brainer," DeMontrond effused to the luncheon gathering. "It's like buying a car and having someone else pay the note."

It's hard to imagine any municipality in its right mind turning down such an opportunity. But Seattle, which had been regarded as the early front-runner, did just that last fall. Its City Council opted not to support the Seattle bid committee's effort -- after a poll showed that 55 percent of residents there didn't want the games.

Although it's not hard to find people who back DeMontrond's view, it's a snap to tap a completely different perspective. Georgia Tech professor Larry Keating, an urban planner who has studied the impact of the games on Atlanta, perforates Olympic myths like a cigarette on a soap bubble. "I was appalled by [what happened]," Keating says.

"There's a lot of major lessons from the Atlanta experience," says Keating, who lived through years of chronic hassles and broken promises surrounding the event. "When someone tells you a big spectacle like the Olympics isn't gonna cost you anything and it's gonna make a lot of money, hold onto your pants, because it's not true."

Whether Houston wins or loses, Jack Kelly figures, the city's bid will cost at least $3 million for the preliminary round and another $3 million to $5 million for the international effort. That's considerably less than the $12 million that the Baltimore-Washington group estimates it will spend just to convince the USOC of its superiority.

 

Kelly dismisses the Baltimore-Washington figure as hopelessly inflated, though he says the value of the in-kind contributions he expects from the corporate sector will be worth several million dollars. The law firm of Bracewell & Patterson, for example, is doing the group's legal work pro bono. Rives Carlberg, a local advertising and public relations firm, has already donated a small fortune's worth of time. "We will run a very good bid for $3 million," Kelly says.

But $3 million could be well spent on any number of civic projects, which begs the question: Does Houston really have a snowball's chance?

Kelly, a no-nonsense New Englander whose unassuming demeanor belies a sharp sense of schmooze, knows his details: He ran the U.S. Olympic Festival (USOC's premier annual event) in Houston in 1986 and in Minneapolis-St. Paul four years later. He also managed the Goodwill Games in 1994 and 1998 for Turner Broadcasting and through his USOC involvement has extensive knowledge of the bid selection process. When he speaks of matters Olympic, he speaks convincingly.

So when Kelly (or mouthpiece George DeMontrond, whom Kelly has carefully coached) explains why he thinks the city is a top contender, it's worth at least a careful listen. We have several key advantages, they say, including Houston's compactness. This may seem ironic to the few hundred thousand Bayou City residents who make the daily pilgrimage from the suburbs to downtown, or who have tried to navigate more than a few of the 556 square miles within the city limits.

But compared to the dual-city bids of Tampa Bay-Orlando and Baltimore-Washington and their potentially ponderous commutes, a crosstown shuttle here might seem like a cakewalk (except at rush hour). Cincinnati wants to include Lexington, Kentucky, and Indianapolis in its bid package, which could make for a logistical nightmare.

An overlapping plus, Kelly says, is the lack of inter-city squabbling, since Houston is the only burg engaged in the local bid. Dallas, on the other hand, usurped its bid from Arlington and must share the limelight with Fort Worth, which could eventually produce internal sniping. Baltimore and Washington were glued at the hip (reluctantly, according to news accounts) by Mobil's $500,000 donation to the cause -- contingent on their cooperation.

Though he picks his words carefully, Kelly believes that Houston will make USOC's short list by virtue of the insurmountable obstacles other cities face. New York can't seem to get its act together and didn't have an especially successful Goodwill Games. Cincinnati lacks sufficient international cachet, and its bid is too spread out. Los Angeles has already had the games twice and lacks public support for a third go-round. "Realistically, they won't win," he says, with the assurance of someone attached firmly to the grapevine.

DeMontrond adds Dallas to the pile of rejects. The various cities involved are "fighting like cats and dogs," he says. And it didn't help that City Councilmember Laura Miller publicly called Dallas bid chairman Tom Luce a liar, or that she and another councilmember voted not to support the bid committee's efforts. "There's some personality politics that's going on in Dallas," DeMontrond says. "There's some real negativism."

That has not been a problem in Houston, where elected officials have generally embraced (or at least not obstructed) the Olympic dream. Councilmember Carroll Robinson, for instance, speaks glowingly of the city's chances. No other city in the running can compare, he says. Baltimore-Washington? Not as clean, attractive or happening. Tampa-Orlando? A swamp with few attractions. San Francisco? "What's in San Francisco," Robinson asks, "other than hills and Tony Bennett?"

(Naturally, the competition respectfully disagrees. Though they decline to blast Houston's chances outright, none of the bid directors surveyed by the Press included it on their roster of likely finalists.)

We have one more big advantage, Robinson insists. Now that the scandal in Salt Lake City has made bribing one's way into the games a thing of the past, he says, our chances have soared. "I think the whole issue of Utah has made this a much leveler playing field," he says. "If that's the case, on the merits, Houston should win hands down. We don't buy votes in Houston. We have good relationships."

Those who have been following the City Hall trials over the months or studied the wheelings and dealings of the Department of Public Works might get a good chuckle out of Robinson's claim. Even people behind Houston's bid privately admit that everyone knew how the game was played and that the city was prepared -- and well equipped -- to play it. "I'd say we're experts," says one of Robinson's colleagues grimly.

 

The stifling summer heat wouldn't at first appear to be Houston's most meritorious attribute. But DeMontrond insists that it is. Because of the need for climate control, the city will have at least three air-conditioned domed stadiums for Olympic use that will ensure spectator comfort, enhance the likelihood of world track and field records and eliminate the chance of rain delays, which the high-paying television sponsors hate.

Add the city's perpetually clogged highways and feeble public transportation network to the honor roll. "Once again, in a perverse sort of way, not having rail maybe helps a little bit," says DeMontrond somewhat tentatively. "We have this big, robust highway infrastructure," he explains, the capacity of which could be expanded by adding a bunch of buses to the HOV lanes. And though he won't weigh in on the politically sensitive rail issue, he admits that having a rail system would improve the city's chances. "Clearly that would help," he says.

DeMontrond doesn't really see any liabilities. "We've got very few warts," he says. "Most of the perceived biggest weak spots, in my opinion, in fact aren't weak spots. They're inherent strengths."

The car dealer doesn't dwell in a fantasy world, nor does he lack smarts, as his Princeton engineering and Texas law degrees would indicate. His unrestrained optimism simply reflects a strategic ploy noted by Kelly in a memo on improving public awareness. "We ... need to confront the potential negatives we face by addressing them early and 'spinning' them," he wrote. "A key to our public communications will be a policy of never apologizing for any shortcomings we might have or be perceived to have, but rather emphasizing our strengths."

No apologies may be forthcoming, but others have noticed the shortcomings. Dallas has indirectly alluded to the weather problem by hinting that it would ask to push the games forward from the traditional July-August window to a more hospitable June date, though Kelly doubts the IOC would go for it. Told of DeMontrond's air-conditioned stadium theory, San Francisco bid director Susan Loder couldn't restrain her sarcasm. "They're also building 2.7 million retractable bubbles to get me from my hotel room to the venues, right?" she asked.

Houston City Councilmember Annise Parker is more blunt about the rail issue. "We have a transportation problem," Parker says. "We all need to acknowledge it."

Another potential stumbling block: It's not at all clear that this is where the world wants to spend its summer vacation. Among the candidates, Houston ranks with Cincinnati at the bottom of the heap as a tourist destination. And the number of hotel rooms within a reasonable distance of downtown (43,000) barely surpasses the total reserved for the Atlanta games by the organizing committee (41,500), leaving almost none for those not on the official guest list. By comparison, Tampa-Orlando boasts more than 150,000. The Dallas-Fort Worth area offers about 75,000.

DeMontrond counters this with his usual cheery assessment. "Eventually we'll build a downtown hotel," he says, "some way, somehow." That would add only about 1,000 rooms to the still-paltry total, but you've got to think big. "I have no doubt that Houston is gonna add some hotel space," he says. "We've got 13 years for that."

A promise and a smile may not satisfy USOC, however, which will make its first cut in March 2002 and make the final decision later that year. Nor is the organization likely to buy the breezy assurance that all the necessary arenas will be in place; the bid committee plans to use the proposed football stadium as the prime Olympic venue, but its construction depends on the city's prospects for a football team, which seem hazy. (Though not, of course, to DeMontrond. "I don't think anybody really doubts that by 2012 we'll have a [football] team," he says.)

Carroll Robinson's hometown pride notwithstanding, the view that outsiders have of Houston may not be quite as radiant as DeMontrond's. Though Houston is on the international map as an oil and energy hub, a hodgepodge of misimpressions remain difficult to root out: Houston is unsophisticated; Houston is dirty and gray; Houston has no identity of its own. The subject is a sensitive one for the bid team. "The image people have of Houston is probably not the accurate image," DeMontrond says gingerly. "We need to work on our image."

To help with this, the team has hired a couple of experts from the Houston Image Group, the same folks whose crowning achievement was spending $300,000 to lure TV's Wheel of Fortune to town for a week.

Though he doesn't trumpet them, Kelly is attuned to the bid's weaknesses. In a hand-scrawled note headed "Problem areas/Areas of concern," he noted several items, including "weather, internal public transportation, city image."

 

Even DeMontrond sometimes removes his rose-colored glasses, if inadvertently. Pointing out to the downtown crowd that Houston's summertime hotel occupancy rate is relatively low, he argued that unlike more popular destinations, we wouldn't have to push away the summer tourist crowd in favor of Olympic visitors. "We're not already full," he said. "Nobody wants to be in Houston during the summer."

Mayor Lee Brown and County Judge Robert Eckels have projected the economic impact of the Olympic Games for Houston at $9 billion. Others say we'll do as well as Atlanta, which reaped $5.1 billion from its games, or $3.5 billion, depending on who's calculating. Regardless, the benefits far outweigh the cost of the games, as supporters are quick to point out.

Besides, they say, the Atlanta games didn't really cost anything, since the $1.72 billion in expenses was perfectly offset by $1.72 billion in revenues from sponsorships, television revenue and ticket sales. Sure, there are a few naysayers who claim that the games actually accrued a $30-million to $40-million deficit (covered by the taxpayers), but in return the city got a new baseball stadium and other big-ticket infrastructure at a bargain-basement price. "I view that as spending $30 million to 40 million to have $550 million worth of assets," DeMontrond says.

Better than that, exposure from the Olympics turns cities into premier destinations for big business, which in turn creates thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars in expanded tax base. Atlanta, notes DeMontrond, had the highest relocation index in the U.S. the past few years. "Why?" he asks. "Because of the visibility they got from the Olympics."

If the Olympics-equals-boundless-prosperity equation seems a little fuzzy, there's a reason. "I don't think there's a way of getting a grasp of those numbers," says Dana White, an urban historian at Emory University in Atlanta. "When it comes to demonstrating what those economic effects are, I'm very skeptical."

In fact, most of the figures used to demonstrate the tremendous economic impact of the Atlanta games were prepared years in advance by consultants hired by the organizers. Studies after the fact were never funded.

Part of the problem with a more objective analysis, White reasons, is that costs and benefits can be manipulated to show whatever the manipulators want to show. The official Atlanta expenses, for example, didn't include almost $200 million in bonds floated by the university system to pay for the Olympic Village, or $150 million in municipal bonds that voters approved in 1994 to speed improvements to the city's infrastructure.

In Houston, the juggling has already begun. Our bid will be low-cost, say organizers, because we'll already have most of the big venues in place and won't have to spend Olympic revenues to pay for them. That presumes the existence of a football stadium, financed by the taxpayers with a voter-approved few hundred million dollars from hotel and rental car taxes, plus millions more in those nebulous infrastructure improvements. Charge it to a different account, and suddenly the balance sheet looks a lot blacker.

How much, for example, will a light-rail system cost that will pass USOC muster? Or the Japanese-style bullet trains Jack Kelly envisions shooting to Austin, Dallas and San Antonio? And who will pay for it all? However many billions, those costs will be far removed from the Olympic books.

The citizens of Montreal would take issue with the economic boon theory. When that city won the bid for the 1976 games, Mayor Jean Drapeau declared that the Olympics couldn't possibly lose money. Though the final figure may never be fixed, estimates are that Montreal took about a $1-billion hit, with bills still left unpaid.

If any economic lesson can be learned from experience, it's that the final results are unpredictable. Atlanta organizers don't like to mention that they projected a $156-million surplus that would be used to promote youth sports and other worthwhile ventures for the city. Utah, which is a heady $300 million short of its sponsorship goal (and $65 million over budget), may be facing fiscal disaster if corporations don't rebound from the effects of the bribery scandal and sign on in droves. Bob Carr, the premier of New South Wales, Australia, doesn't expect Sydney's 2000 Olympics to yield much of a return. "It would be foolish to say the games are an economic bonanza or that they'll solve our economic problems," Carr told the Australian press.

There are backers of the notion that Olympic cities attract a disproportionate amount of corporate investment after the fact. Corporate relocation consultant Dennis Donovan, who has placed clients in Atlanta and Texas, says Olympic exposure gives cities another product to sell and can improve their chances of making a company's short list.

 

On the other hand, companies will always make their final decisions based on the cost of doing business, the availability of skilled labor, quality-of-life issues and other tangibles, many of which Atlanta can claim to its advantage. While Atlanta has had exceptional recruiting success, it's the continuation of a trend that started long before the Olympics came. "No one has any data to suggest [a correlation]," says Mark Rosentraub, an associate dean at the University of Indiana and the author of Major League Losers, a book about the economics of sports. "I don't think you're going to find more than a handful of economists who are going to tell you [the Olympics] is the best use of your money in terms of long-term economic development."

To further cloud the big picture, the economics of the Olympics is rapidly changing, and no one quite knows where it's headed. In the wake of the hypercommercialized Atlanta games, where corporate logos were draped over downtown buildings and street vendors turned Olympic venues into Third World flea markets, the IOC said, "never again." How this will affect the ability of cities to recoup expenses with sponsorships has yet to be determined.

And wannabe nations have shown an increased willingness to underwrite the games -- and give the IOC a heftier percentage of the income -- that would be tough for any U.S. city to equal. "If you're gonna try to put a bid out that matches what Sweden and Australia were willing to do," says Rosentraub, "you can't make money."

There is one absolute about Olympic finances: Lots of money is spent, and lots of money is made. The assumption underlying the generous assessments of promoters is that everyone benefits, directly or indirectly. But the headlong rush to cash in often yields what Rosentraub calls the "Wal-Mart syndrome," where the big guys crowd the little guys out of the picture. "Somebody's gonna be wiped off the table," he says.

Atlanta is instructive. Georgia Tech professor Larry Keating says large institutions were the major beneficiaries, including the Atlanta Braves, other big corporations, area universities and the state Department of Transportation. "Those outfits garnered multiple millions of dollars' worth of goodies."

The Braves got a free ballpark out of the deal -- after the games, the Olympic stadium was converted as planned into Turner Field, sparing the citizens the expense of funding a private palace for the team as Houstonians did for the Astros and owner Drayton McLane. Corporate sponsor Bell South, which spent $20 million to have its name splattered across the city, figures it pulled in twice that amount in revenues from Olympics-related work. Media outlets owned by Belo Corp. (parent of The Dallas Morning News and Houston's KHOU-Channel 11) raked in millions from Olympic advertisers. Millions more got shoveled to favored contractors and other political insiders (see "Playing the Games").

Georgia Tech turned part of the Olympic Village into dorms and absorbed the $24-million aquatic center. Georgia State also kept a piece of the new housing stock, and sporting venues at other schools got facelifts. The state used several hundred million in federal transportation funds to beef up its highways and Atlanta's light-rail system.

At least one apparent winner is having second thoughts, however: Rockdale County, Georgia,, which scored a "free" $40-million equestrian facility and mountain bike course, is now looking to unload it because the maintenance costs are too heavy.

More clearly on the flip side, hundreds of small businesses that had been promised the moon came away with, at best, a chunk of cheese. The Georgia Hospitality and Travel Association reported that restaurants, many of which added inventory and staff in anticipation of Olympic mobs, suffered drops in sales of as much as 50 percent in the two-month period surrounding the event. Vendors who paid fat fees for the right to sell concessions on the street lost their shirts. One entrepreneur who built a cyber-themed attraction said he lost $1.5 million because access was hindered by temporary roadblocks.

The biggest losers, however, weren't the businesses that dropped a few bucks on a failed dream. That honor belongs to the estimated 15,000 residents, businesses and homeless people shoved aside to make way for Olympic glory. Landlords, thinking they could get a year's rent in three weeks from wealthy out-of-towners, kicked out long-standing tenants. Forty-six tenants were booted from their building to provide rooms for the Canadian Olympic Association.

The local housing authority admitted that 2,232 families were displaced within the 1.5-mile radius of downtown known as the "Olympic Ring." Of the 14 inner-city neighborhoods targeted for Olympic-related redevelopment by the authorities, only five ever saw any money, and only two of those reaped significant benefits. Residents of the Techwood and Clark-Howell public housing complexes, located on prime downtown land long eyed by developers, were strong-armed out. To make way for Centennial Olympic Park, 71 small businesses were razed.

 

The city's most downtrodden had the worst of it. To build the Coca-Cola Olympic City theme park, four homeless shelters were forced to relocate. The police, with the help of new local ordinances against panhandling or looking guilty, arrested 10,000 homeless people the year preceding the Olympics, four times the usual number. According to Anita Beaty, who heads the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, the cops had tickets preprinted with "African-American male" and "homeless" to save time. "If you were African-American and looked poor," Beaty says, "you were gonna be arrested, or harassed and asked to move on."

For the bulk of Atlanta's residents, however, the Olympics had a mixed impact. The thrill of being on the global stage and the warm feelings of community pride were offset by years of snarled freeway traffic and other inconveniences caused by massive construction projects. Offices were rendered inaccessible and had to be shut down. Security concerns, especially after the Olympic Park bombing, turned the city into a veritable fortress for more than a month. As if to underscore the point, thousands of citizens fled the city that July rather than face the Olympic fallout. "If I was a citizen of Houston, I wouldn't be looking forward to it," says Emory historian Dana White. "I wouldn't think it was really worth it."

Late last year, Seattle committed blasphemy. By a 7-1 margin, the city council refused to give its bid committee the vote of confidence required by USOC, effectively killing its chances. Several weeks later, the committee threw in the towel.

The reason Seattle said no, George DeMontrond thinks, was strictly bottom line. With hotel occupancy high in the summer, the city didn't want to drive off its regular customers for a new set. "It doesn't make as much economic sense for Seattle to host the games," he says.

Given the plethora of economic benefits touted by DeMontrond in his presentations, that explanation itself doesn't make much sense. And during the debate, Seattle city councilmembers didn't even mention hotel capacity or offending the regular customers. The Olympics could drain money needed for education, environmental improvements and other city priorities, they said, and would overwhelm the civic agenda for the next 14 years. They were warned they'd be on the hook for losses or lawsuits. It just wasn't worth it, they decided.

Besides, said citizens and elected officials, the city doesn't need the Olympics to be world-class. Seattle, they felt, is already world-class.

Houstonians may guffaw at the idea that Seattle has such a lofty opinion of itself. But the belly laughs would ring hollow, revealing a deep-seated insecurity, which, all gloss aside, may be the real reason many supporters want the Olympics so desperately. "To some extent, the city definitely has an inferiority complex," says Houston Councilmember Rob Todd.

And the Olympics offers the most spectacular single opportunity to eradicate the negative image others may have of Houston -- and that Houstonians may have as well. "This is not some cowtown, a dust bowl," DeMontrond told the crowd of downtown types, as though trying to hammer the message home.

"The big-picture reason we want the Olympics is it will highlight Houston as a world-class city," says Councilmember Chris Bell. "But do you have to host the Olympics to be recognized as a world-class city?"

Todd has an answer. "The reality is, when you're a world-class city, you don't have to ask yourself what you have to do to become one."

The many messages being offered to justify the Olympics -- to provide economic development, boost self-esteem, promote tourism, redevelop the community; all at no cost -- seem a little too spotless. And they have a certain insubstantial quality to them, as though they would buckle or bend under pressure.

That may help explain why the business community has been uncharacteristically cool thus far: The Greater Houston Partnership passed a weak resolution of support and has yet to fork over any cash. "The private sector enthusiasm for this is not as high as I'd like to see it," says Councilmember Orlando Sanchez. "This ought to be driven by the private sector."

Supporters say that the enthusiasm will come in due time. Many of the city's largest corporations have been too distracted by major dealings and simply haven't had time to think about it, hypothesizes City Councilmember Martha Wong. "They're busy merging," she says.

Wong counts herself among the believers. The Olympics will perform, she thinks, as advertised. "I am probably the eternal optimist," she says.

 

Though they voted unanimously to approve and fund the Houston bid, Wong's peers may ask a few more questions the next time a related appropriation comes before them. "I can be sold on the Olympics," says Bell. "Part of me can get very excited about the Olympics coming to Houston. But I think it's fair to have a debate about whether that's the best use of our dollars."

Sanchez, who rankled his colleagues by tagging the support resolution for a week, expresses more doubt. "The Olympics aren't cheap," he says, wondering aloud about issues such as teacher pay and care for the homeless. "I wonder if our priorities are correct. As a society, we have to re-evaluate our priorities."

Todd is also skeptical about the finances, but he has a solution. "The ideal situation for the Olympics is to get Dallas or San Antonio to pay for it," he says, "and then we can drive three hours to attend.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >