Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



June 9, 2005 -- After quite a dry spell, I've added several new names to my eclectic pantheon of political heroes, which had been reserved for the likes of Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman and Cyrus Vance, who resigned as Jimmy Carter's secretary of state on a matter of principle.

The new names, inscribed for moral courage in the face of heavy pressure and lobbying, are Sheldon Silver and Joe Bruno. Unless you live in New York, you don't know these political leaders. But business and leisure travelers alike should: They have not only struck a blow for common sense and taxpayer rights, but they also have saved the nation from the financial train wreck of an Olympic Games in 2012.

For somewhat different reasons, Silver and Bruno abstained from a critical vote in New York earlier this week. Their abstentions effectively and thankfully laid to rest the idea of a new stadium for the New York football Jets that would have doubled as the centerpiece of New York's bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Proposed for the far west side of Manhattan, the stadium would have cost taxpayers $1.3 billion or more in subsidies and would have had a total price tag four times greater than any similar stadium in the country. And this white elephant, situated as it would have been in parking lot-deficient Manhattan, would not have even allowed for the all-American pastime of tailgating!

Silver, the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, New York state's lower house, and Bruno, the Republican speaker of the Senate, New York's upper chamber, in effect canceled out persistent and strident efforts by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York State Governor George Pataki to force this boondoggle on the citizens of the Empire State.

Silver represents downtown Manhattan and has persuasively argued that the solemnly promised redevelopment of Ground Zero and its environs have been ignored while Bloomberg and Pataki myopically focused on foisting the stadium and related developments on the far west side of the island. He also felt that this program was a bad deal for the citizens of New York, who were never allowed to vote on the project.

Bruno opposed the stadium, too, but took a more political line. He has been saying that we should wait until the July 6th decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on whether New York City will even be awarded the 2012 Games. What's the rush, he asked, often and forcefully, indicating that he would have voted for this highly controversial project if New York got the nod for 2012.

The decisions by Silver and Bruno overrode the petulant and emotional arguments of the mayor and the governor, who wanted the Manhattan proposal approved this week, before the IOC's final word next month. Like many of us, Bruno doesn't think New York has a chance to win the games, since is it clear that Paris is all but the Chosen Instrument (as we once called Pan Am) and London is the obvious back-up choice. Without the stadium, Bruno has deftly calculated that New York now stands no chance at all.

What's this all got to do with travel? Well, for starters, business travelers are already saddled with ferocious taxes on hotel rooms and car rentals to pay for stadia in various cities. These arenas rarely return their investment for their hometown and, of course, they never make sense to travelers who pay the onerous occupancy and vehicle levies.

Mayor Bloomberg's Pyramid--as I have been calling the stadium in our sister publication, BizTraveLife--is no different. Bloomberg's initial estimate of public subsidy was $300 million, later revised upward to $600 million and most recently calculated at $1.3 billion. All this to help build a stadium that would be owned by the New York Jets. Of course, the Jets are owned by Woody Johnson, billionaire heir of the $47 billion Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals conglomerate.

And then there's this: Who wants an Olympic Games in New York anyway? Most New Yorkers don't. They don't want the added grief, noise, traffic and security hassles. Besides, the Olympic Games are not a tourist attraction, as the Greeks are discovering to their dismay. Greece hosted the 2004 Summer Games and that small nation now faces an Olympian public debt of perhaps €7 billion--or about €50,000 for each and every Greek household. Worst of all, Greece's once-robust tourism business plummeted during last year's Games and hasn't substantially recovered this year.

Why? Because Olympic spectacles don't bring additional tourism. There's nothing new about this observation and, at the risk of being a prophet without honor, I've been saying this very thing for decades. Circa 1960, for example, I wrote a series of articles before the Rome Olympics predicting that visitors would stay home in droves, which they did. Rome also had housing problems at the time: There was simply not enough hotel capacity and everything for many miles around, including private homes, was roped into service to bolster the lodging pool. Not surprisingly, attendance failed to meet expectations.

Los Angeles in 1984 had a slightly different set of headaches, although Olympics boss Peter V. Ueberroth was the Time Man of the Year for bringing the Games home in the black. But the end results of the LA Olympics were the same. Los Angeles was plagued by advance word of gouging at hotels, car-rental companies and restaurants. There was also fear of gridlock. And then the Soviet Union and its allies decided to stay home. It gave Uncle Sam a clear field to dominate the results, but there were few paying tourists in Los Angeles to see the victories.

And ask Quebecers about the 1976 Olympic Games. They are still paying 30 years later. Not to mention that the stadium built to handle the opening and closing ceremonies is now a rusty relic with a balky retractable roof that doesn't even host the Montreal Expos baseball team anymore. The Expos escaped to Washington this year, transformed themselves into the Nationals and, ironically, have rocketed into first place in the National League East.

Given the Greek and Canadian financial experiences with the Olympic Games, I think New York--not to mention overtaxed New Yorkers and the gouged business travelers who use the city--have dodged a gigantic metaphoric bullet. And we have Silver and Bruno to thank, assuming, of course, that Bloomberg's discredited Pyramid isn't resurrected.

Copyright 2001-2005 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.