Thursday, March 15, 2007

Chicago Tribune | $500 Million Guarantee While $15 Million Taxpayer Funds Quietly Slipped for Aquatic Center

By Mickey Ciokajlo, Tribune staff reporter. Tribune staff reporter Noreen Ahmed-Ullah contributed to this report

March 15, 2007

The City Council on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a $500 million guarantee to back up Chicago's Olympics bid, despite skepticism from some aldermen about the Daley administration's plan.

Later in the day, the Chicago Park District voted to reserve $15 million in revenue to help pay for an aquatic center to be built if the city wins the 2016 Games.

As the city took some of the first official steps toward committing public funds for the Olympics, Mayor Richard Daley sought to stem concerns that there was not enough public discussion about the plans developed by the private Chicago 2016 committee working with his administration.

"Even if the U.S. Olympic Committee selects you, this is not a done deal," Daley said. "This is just the beginning. We're in batting practice. We haven't even stepped up to the plate yet.

"There's going to be a lot of conversation, a lot of talk, a lot of improvements in regards to the whole process."

Five South Side aldermen voted against the plan to provide up to $500 million in city funds if the Games lose money, saying they couldn't risk taxpayers being on the hook even if they supported the idea of Chicago hosting the Olympics.

Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th) said she was troubled that the need for a city guarantee was not disclosed until after last month's city election. Explaining her "no" vote, she said the timing of the disclosure made her doubt whether she could trust the financial projections for the Olympics.

"Ironically, the same people who didn't want to tell us that this guarantee would be required want us now to trust them that the possibility of having to use these guarantees is very, very, very remote," Preckwinkle said. "The funny thing is I think you could make a case--if people were more honest--you could make a case that even if the city has to make these guarantees to get the Olympics, it's worth it."

Despite the reservations, the aldermen voted 45-5 in favor of the proposal, with many saying the Games would provide lasting economic benefits for the city, such as new housing and the aquatic center.

"It is those residuals that is really the bottom line and makes the Olympic 2016 a valuable asset to the city of Chicago," said Bernard Stone (50th).

The United States Olympic Committee is expected to choose April 14 whether Chicago or Los Angeles will be sent to the international competition, from which the ultimate site for the Games will be picked in 2009.

Daley for months had said that Chicago taxpayers' money would not be used to host the Olympics and has embarked, with the help of a local business leaders, on an aggressive fundraising campaign.

But last week an official with the USOC said the committee expects the city to put "some skin," or financial backing, on the line as part of its bid. Daley's team began meeting with aldermen on Friday about a plan to provide a $500 million layered city guarantee.

The city has not fully explained how it will come up with the money, and Daley and his finance team have downplayed the likelihood that it would ever be tapped. They stress that they expect the Games to generate a $525 million surplus.

"Consider it like an insurance policy," Daley said Wednesday. "If everything fails--earthquake, tornado, everything comes down--this is your insurance policy."

Asked if there were any additional guarantees required beyond the $500 million, Daley said "No, I don't think so."

Joining Preckwinkle in voting against the guarantee were Ald. Dorothy Tillman (3rd), Shirley Coleman (16th), Arenda Troutman (20th) and Howard Brookins Jr. (21st).

"I don't think that there is anybody in this body ... hoping that these Olympics won't come to Chicago," Brookins said. "But as I stand here, I have to be a voice of quiet reflection saying this thing may not work, we may be stuck."

Three of the five African-American aldermen who dissented are facing challengers in the April 17 runoff election. A small group of African-American protesters occasionally disrupted the council meeting, arguing that the Olympics could force the dislocation of poor residents and destroy Washington Park where the Olympic stadium is planned.

With the protesters voicing support, Troutman called the Olympic proposal a "blatant land grab" and started her criticism by saying the Nazis purged slums in preparation for the 1936 Games.

"I am still the voice of the people," said Troutman, who lost in last month's election and faces federal charges for allegedly accepting bribes.

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