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Ambassador Gianna Angelopoulos Headshot

If You Build It, Will They Come?

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I am addicted to American movies, and one of my favorites is the classic Field of Dreams, in which Kevin Costner's character famously hears a voice whispering to him in the middle of an Iowa cornfield: "If you build it, they will come." It's a promise: build a baseball field, and people will come -- to play, to watch, to buy tickets, hot dogs, and beer.

If only all infrastructure investments were that simple.

London is finding out the hard way that successful infrastructure investment takes more than good intentions and hope. As the New York Times recently reported, the stadium constructed in London for the 2012 Olympics is currently empty, and its future prospects remain uncertain. As the centerpiece of the $14.3 billion investment poured into the London Olympics, 80,000 empty seats are both a frightening symbol -- and a shame.

London is learning a slightly different version of the mantra from Field of Dreams:If you build it, they will come for a while -- but if you don't have a plan, they will leave.

Major events like an Olympics often prompt overdue investments in a city's infrastructure. Done well, they are rare opportunities to reshape the destiny of a city and the people who inhabit it.

Unfortunately, when cities don't plan for the long-term, they tend to fall short.

I had the honor of leading the Athens Olympic bid committee, and, when Athens efforts to prepare for the Games fell behind, of returning to run the Organizing Committee.

The Athens Olympics spurred much-needed and long overdue investments in the city's transportation infrastructure, including a new airport and several new subway and rail projects, at a total cost of $4.5 billion. That's a once-in-a-generation level of infrastructure investment.

To get a sense of the scope of the Olympic operation, think back to Boston's "Big Dig," the most expensive highway construction project in American history. The Big Dig ultimately took 25 years to complete. Now imagine that with the Big Dig's shovels in the ground, Boston was also busy building a new airport to replace Logan; adding two new lines to the city's downtown subway system and two more light railway lines out to the suburbs; widening more than a hundred miles of city streets; repaving Storrow Drive; and trying to maneuver a seventeen-thousand-ton, 269,000-square-foot steel and Plexiglas roof onto Fenway Park.

And imagine doing all that in Athens where each shovelful of dirt might have turned up a priceless ancient artifact -- two millennia older than Fenway Park, if you can believe it.

That's what the Athens Olympics operation looked like: an enormous, complicated undertaking, with correspondingly high stakes for the future of the city. And that's what big infrastructure projects are: big risks, big responsibilities, and above all, tremendous opportunities.

Unlike the Big Dig, we were able to complete the projects on time. But while controlling spending and completing the projects on time might have guaranteed success for the Athens Olympics, it could have done so much more to guarantee success for Athens itself.

Yes, Greece's economic growth was among the highest in Europe in the years leading up to the Olympics, and in the three years following. But ultimately, an opportunity was missed to fuel even greater growth.

One of my great disappointments is to see, as I drive around Athens, venues shuttered, padlocked, and decaying. And it's not just the Olympic venues. As an example, we built a communications center that could have been taken over by the state or city government as a turn-key crisis control center. Instead, it was dismantled.

Just as every battle should have an exit strategy, every infrastructure investment should begin with clarity about how that investment will pay returns over the course of its useful life.

There is no shortage of cautionary tales when it comes to infrastructure investment, whether it is highways that isolated neighborhoods in cities, or "bridges to nowhere." The defining feature of most infrastructure projects is that they are permanent -- so decisions we make today will have lasting effects that will be difficult to alter in the future.

Whether we're planning an Olympic Games or a new interstate highway, policymakers need to look past the short-term budget and scheduling constraints, and have a clear vision of how what is built today will be used tomorrow. If you build it, they will come. Plan correctly, and they'll stay.