The juxtaposition of the Olympic stories in Saturday's Sun-Times couldn't have been more revealing. On page two was a story in which Mayor Daley promised that no public money would be spent on the Olympics. And on page three was a story in which city officials said just the opposite, airing plans to spend $15 million in Park District money to help build a $78 million "state-of-the-art aquatic-center" in Douglas Park.
That was fast -- the city usually waits at least a few months before going back on its word.
City officials claim they're using the Olympics to benefit the west side, but I have a hunch they're really leaving it with a white elephant. According to Philip Hersh's account in Saturday's Tribune, the aquatic center "would have a roof but open sides and ends during the Games and later be turned into an indoor facility."
Olympic or city officials didn't say who was going to pay to build the walls, though I think we all know the answer. Let's face it, there's not going to be much incentive to winterize it after the Olympics, unless, of course, the area rapidly gentrifies by then. If the center gets built, I predict it will sit empty for nine months a year once the Olympics leaves town; for the other three months, the Park District, forever short of operating cash, won't have enough money to adequately staff it.
The idea is that we're using the Olympics to help pay for something we need or at least really want to have. But let's not be dupes. If Douglas Park really needs an aquatic center -- and I'm not sure it does, since it already has a swimming pool -- then we should start building one now, independently of the Olympics. And if Douglas Park doesn't need a center, why spend at least $15 million in property taxes to build one, especially when the city has so many other pressing recreational needs, like an indoor running track?
It's not as though west-side residents were clamoring for an aquatic center. The Olympic committee originally intended to build it at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But Daley had them move it to Douglas Park to appease west-side alderman Ed Smith (28th), who was upset that Westinghouse High School was getting such a puny pool in its renovation.
In any event, city officials made it clear that the center will only be built if Chicago gets an Olympics.
The city's showing its priorities. When it comes to Olympic Village, Daley says he's building it with or without the Olympics--because, lord knows, we need a few thousand more condominium units in town.
But when it comes to Douglas Park, it's straight-up blackmail: go with the Games or the west side doesn't get its pools.