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Burned by the IOC, But Not by Burnham: Lessons From the Collapse in Copenhagen

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The Olympic smackdown was a body blow that took our collective breath away. A shiv in the side of our civic consciousness, whether you wanted the games in Chicago. Or not. And now the experts are pointing their fingers at the likely culprits in an endless series of hand-wringing debriefings since the "Collapse in Copenhagen" was announced last Friday.

But no one is suggesting that Chicago didn't have historical synergy on its side. This, after all, is the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham's visionary plan to protect Chicago's lakefront and adjacent parks from an invasion of business leaders who were salivating at the prospect of turning our pristine waterfront into a cargo-laden shoreline cash cow worthy of a Marlon Brando movie. And Burnham gave us the famous line that to some extent underscores Mayor Daley's quest for the Olympics: "Make no small plans for they have no magic to stir men's souls." The Olympic bid definitely passed the Burnham test of grand scope. And as someone who's watched the mayor almost every day of his public life, I can tell you that Burnham was a big part of the muse for his Olympic dream. Along with the more practical pursuit of jobs, economic development and a headline for his epitaph that doesn't include the word "corruption."

And that's a key to the problem here. The Olympic bid was indeed a big plan that stirred a lot of souls. But it also stirred a lot of stomachs at the same time. Producing a major case of civic indigestion. Because the promise of an urban revival, an influx of free-spending tourists from around the world, and a chance to shed the "Second City" inferiority complex once and for all, was tempered by too many visions of the "Chicago Way" leading the way---jobs and contracts going to the usual suspects, the connected insiders who reap the benefits of all the mega-projects, while the unconnected citizens and companies out in the neighborhoods suffer though the disruptions and dislocations and gridlock of the Olympic buildup, and the games themselves, without being able to afford a ticket or see the tangible benefits of a plan that stirred more migraines than magic. And could have left taxpayers holding the bag for a big bill if games lost money.

One prominent alderman told anyone who'd listen that if city residents had seen the expense reports from the Chicago 2016 committee members who prepared and tried to sell the bid, they would have risen up in a revolt powerful enough to derail the bid long before the train wreck in Copenhagen. Daley and the 2016 team also refused to endorse a real oversight plan proposed by Alderman Manny Flores, who wanted to empower the city's inspector general and a civic group like the Better Government Association to monitor the flow of jobs and contracts and neighborhood incursions on a daily basis. That might've allayed fears the games were little more than a final payout to Daley's friends and political allies before Richard II exits Chicago's political stage once and for all.

In addition, the timing of the bid couldn't have been worse from a civic standpoint. Chicago and Illinois have become a national laughingstock in the months that followed the release of the undercover FBI audio tapes of former Governor Rod Blagojevich playing "Let's Make a Deal" with the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama. The laughter only increased, everywhere but back home, as Blagojevich took his circus act---"I'm an innocent man unjustly accused"--- on the road to media outlets around the country desperate for ratings hyped by voyeuristic viewers and listeners who can only be compared to the crowds at the public hangings and beheadings that still take place in the squares of backward societies. The apparent suicide of Blago lieutenant Christopher Kelly on the eve of a prison term should have brought the show to a screeching halt, like a slap in the face or a splash of ice-cold water, but the sobering effect only lasted a few days and the tone deaf ex-governor was back on the road again.

L'affair Blagojevich might've been regarded as an aberration had we not already suffered through the sad spectacle of our previous governor, George Ryan, fitted for an orange jump suit after his corruption conviction. And the ineptitude of County Board President Todd Stroger. And the pay-to-play culture of a dysfunctional state government in Springfield. And the worst two years of Daley's tenure, with a combination of record tax increases, endless inner city violence, a demoralized police force that doesn't like working without a contract under the direction of an unpopular former FBI agent, a succession of corruption scandals, a plague of car-eating giant potholes, and a parking privatization fiasco that eviscerated the last vestiges of the mayor's Teflon coating and aura of invincibility.

Is it any surprise the run-up to the clocking in Copenhagen was rife with enough demonstrations, mini-political revolts and expressions of citizen panic to convince any wavering IOC member that "Chicago ain't ready for da games?" A majority of city residents had simply lost faith in the power structure's ability to handle a major undertaking in a way that's actually good for the city as a whole. Sure it would've been exciting. And maybe even fun. But worth the cost? And the hassle? Most Chicagoans were dubious. And that, in at least one way, makes our first round knockout a good thing. Because now, after we get over the shock of ignominious rejection, we're back to the reality of massive budget deficits, a school system in crisis, neighborhoods besieged with the deadly gunfire of gang wars over drug turf, and ineffectual partners at the state and federal level.

This is the ultimate test of Rich Daley's ability to "make no little plans" because little plans won't get much done. It's time, in the interest of his legacy and our future, to partner with civic groups like the Better Government Association, to get rid of the "corruption tax" we pay when government is run for the benefit of the politicians and not the public. The corruption tax is estimated at 10-15% of the cost of government, and since the public sector in Illinois spends about $100 billion a year, that's $10-15 billion in waste, fraud and corruption. The best economic development tool for keeping and attracting businesses and jobs is to attack the corruption tax.

And to restore FAITH in government, which means Fairness, Accountability, Integrity, Transparency and Honesty. That won't get us the Olympic games, but it will go a long way toward restoring a sense of civic pride that's been missing in recent years.

I'm not an expert on the Byzantine politics of the IOC, which supposedly cost us a chance to win the games or even survive the opening round. But I know we play the political game here in Chicago as well as anyone on the planet. And I can't help but think we could've played it a lot better than we did on the world stage in pursuit of the 2016 games.

But I'm glad we didn't. Because it means we still have a huge reservoir of political energy and moxie---and maybe even private sector cash--- to invest in the real time challenges of 2009. And 2010. And all of the other years that eventually lead to 2016.

Because, with or without Rich Daley at the helm, it's time to make some other big plans that have the power to stir all of our souls. To reform government, improve the schools, develop the neighborhoods, protect the kids from violence, provide more affordable housing and harness green technology.

That, more than the illusory benefits of an Olympic build-out with few lasting benefits, represents the best tribute to Burnham on the 100th anniversary of his incomparable gift to Chicago---our magnificent lakefront, which can't be sold or bartered in any pay-to-play scheme or inside deal.

The "I will" spirit of Chicago has been sorely tested in recent years. And kicked in the teeth by the IOC. But now it's time to rebuild our city, literally and figuratively, day by day, brick by brick, plan by plan. And that challenge has the power to stir all of our souls in the way Burnham imagined a century ago. First with the World's Fair of 1893. And then with the Chicago Plan in 1909.

So let's go for a civic gold standard that's more valuable than any Olympic medal. And redefine the meaning of the "Chicago Way" once and for all.


Andy Shaw is Executive Director of the Better Government Association