Daley’s priorities: Olympics over hospitals

July 15, 2008

Bob Quellos reports that the city of Chicago has decided to build an Olympic Village for Olympic Games that may not be held in Chicago.

OVER THE past month, the city of Chicago has revealed its intent to borrow $85 million for the purchase of the land where Michael Reese Hospital currently stands, at the tip of the city's historically Black Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side.

Why? The site is being remapped as the home of the Olympic Village for the 2016 Olympic Games.

Under the city's original proposal, the Olympic Village was set to be located over a truck-staging area. But Mayor Richard Daley explained the reason for the change with the same peeved tone he always takes with reporters. "It's a better approach to always build on land," Daley declared. "This is common sense. This is why the print media is in trouble--because you didn't use common sense. If you have land, you build on the land."

Actually, what's lacking in common sense is the decision to spend tens of millions to build an Olympic Village when your city hasn't been awarded the Olympics yet.

The International Olympic Committee won't be choosing a host city for the 2016 Games until the fall of 2009. When the narrowed-down field was announced this past spring, Chicago was third among contenders that included Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo.

Michael Reese Hospital on Chicago's South Side is slated for closure
Michael Reese Hospital on Chicago's South Side is slated for closure

But Daley and the city seem to be going ahead with plans to construct the Olympic Village--and no one is batting an eye at the closing of the privately run hospital Michael Reese Hospital. The 127-year-old hospital is beset with budget problems, and currently uses less than half of its 360 available patient beds.

Meanwhile, Chicago's hospital system is in crisis. Last year, the Cook County budget deficit led to the slashing of millions of dollars in funds set aside for health care--seven health clinics were shut down, 230 nursing positions axed, and 25 beds at Stroger Hospital eliminated.

Crain's Chicago Business reported last year that the gap between rich and poor hospitals will lead to a "sizable shakeout...This will likely trigger a new wave of mergers, closures and bankruptcies." The same article predicted, "The loss of even a single hospital in a poor neighborhood would punch a hole in the city's health safety net already strained from deep cuts to Cook County's health system, sending an influx of needy patients with chronic diseases like diabetes and asthma into the city's bigger hospitals, hampering their ability to focus on medically complex cases."

What else to read

Journalist Ben Joravsky has written extensively in the Chicago Reader about Chicago's Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts and their impact on local communities--including the funneling of taxpayer dollars into the pockets of business.

For information about the attack on public health care in Cook Country and the struggle against the cuts, visit the California Nurses Association Web site.

THE $85 million note to purchase the land will be backed--naturally--by city taxpayers. "The deal is structured so that the first five years of payments are "interest only," with a rate of 5 percent," the Chicago Sun-Times reported. "If Chicago loses the Olympic sweepstakes, the city would have to pay Medline [the current landower] $90 million. Long before the principal is due, the city plans to sell the property to a master developer--ideally for more than the city is paying for it."

The new development will be anchored by 7,275 dwelling units, alongside 1,000 hotel rooms to be sold as housing after the completion of the 2016 Games. And all of this is being planned as the U.S. housing market bottoms out, with foreclosures expected to reach as high as 3 million.

When the bid for the 2016 Games was first announced, Daley promised they would come at no cost to taxpayers. However, soon afterward, both the city and state put aside $650 million dollars in taxpayer revenue in case of cost overruns during construction. During the short-listing of cities bidding for the Games, the IOC let it be known that if Chicago was going to be the host city, it would need to guarantee twice the amount already set aside for cost overruns, more than $1 billion.

Chicago 2016 has already spent $9.2 million on the application process alone, while an additional $49.3 million more is required to complete the bid. In the end, the Chicago Olympic team estimates that the total cost of bringing the Games to the city could be at least $2 billion.

In Chicago, civic construction delays and cost overruns are legendary. Millennium Park, the city's newest jewel downtown, came in four years behind schedule and three times over budget. A week ago, city officials finally admitted that a massive plan to revamp the Chicago Housing Authority originally slated to be finished by 2010 won't be completed until 2015.

In June, construction was halted on a "super-station" for planned express trains between Chicago-area airports and the Loop business district, with the Chicago Tribune reporting, "A combined $213 million has been spent on the project, yet there is not much more than a massive hole in the ground to show for it." Completing the station would cost an additional $100 million. There are no plans to do so, other than the mayor's assurance that the train lines will be open in time for the Olympics.

Ben Joravsky, a reporter for the Chicago Reader and longtime critic of Daley, recently wrote, "If residents act aggressively now, they might get something in return for their support. But if they wait until after the city's awarded the Games, most, if not all, of their leverage will be lost, because the mayor will have no reason to make concessions."

Joravsky perhaps believes the Daley machine has this one in the bag, as little public outcry in opposition to the Games has taken place.

But the closing of Michael Reese Hospital and the Olympic Village scheme indicate what's ahead. At the end of the day, the 2016 bid is about replacing the mostly Black and poor population on the city's South Side, heavily reliant on public infrastructure, with a population of a much higher income bracket that can pay higher property taxes.

The public funds, time and energy being poured into Olympic planning should be focused on improving the quality of the deteriorating public health care, housing, transit and school systems. Poor and working class Chicago residents should be clear by now--they have nothing to gain from Chicago hosting the 2016 Olympics, and they shouldn't have to kow-tow to the mayor in hopes of improvement in basic public amenities.

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