When the U.S. Olympics Committee invited Philadelphia to bid as host of the 2024 Summer Games, Mayor Michael Nutter coyly noted that the city already possesses much of the necessary stadium infrastructure.
He might have added that Philadelphia also boasts the foundations of an Olympic village— in its School District.
The District is starved for money, weak on educational vision, steeped in excess classrooms. So far, its response has been to downsize, laying off staff and shedding properties.
But Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. wants to get out of this rut. Last month he announced a new goal: to "change the trajectory of the district from debt-ridden to investment-driven."
Well, here's his chance: Why not retrofit the classrooms of the 240-some District schools into apartments for the 2024 Olympics?
Better than Beijing
A bold management strategy? Yes, but not an outlandish stretch for an organization already privatizing education by driving students into charter schools.
To be sure, so far the District's abandoned school buildings haven't generally fetched their market value. But suppose those buildings were filled with Olympic athletes as potential starter tenants?
The athlete apartments that China built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics have since been remodeled and are now reportedly going for $750,000 each.
In London, private investors poured into the 2012 Olympics to upgrade the city's lower Lea Valley from an industrial area into the East Village. Granted, they bailed out during the recession. But a year before the Games opened, the State of Qatar bought the village for $850 million.
The numbers add up
Building an Olympic Village from scratch is costly: the United Kingdom reportedly laid out $1.5 billion. In Philadelphia, however, the School District has a head start because it already owns the stock. And renovation is cheaper than new construction.
Let's do the math (even if many Philadelphia students can't). The U.S. Olympic Committee requires a village that sleeps 16,500, a dining hall for 5,000, and good mass transportation. Philadelphia's School District already serves some 150,000 students, supplies at least 22,000 meals daily, and provides transportation for 62,000 daily.
Even without renovation, the School District's dining halls meet some Olympic standards. Julie Foudy, three-time Olympic soccer medalist and now ESPN analyst, compared the Olympic commons she experienced to a high school cafeteria, "except everyone's beautiful."
Philadelphia's School District already abounds in high school cafeterias. Granted, not everyone inside them is beautiful. But if we could fill them with Olympic athletes and get rid of those pesky students and teachers, maybe more diners would be.
Of course, Philadelphia's schools are not located in one place, like an Olympic village, but are spread throughout the city. But this liability too could be converted into an asset. Once installed in their school/ dormitories, Olympic athletes would meld into their neighborhoods instead of into each other. They could become ambassadors of achievement and status, engaging citizens of all ages about the Olympic ideal of hard work as the key to success.
Children especially would welcome this mentoring because, without schools or classrooms, they would no longer have access to a formal education.
Jobs creation, too
The U.S. Olympic Committee requires all bidding cities to guarantee a workforce of at least 200,000. Well, what better nucleus for such a workforce than the 11,000 teachers who'll be laid off when all those schools are converted to Olympic dorms? What better entry into today's tight workplace than jobs for all of Philadelphia's uneducated kids, cleaning and sweeping the Olympic apartments?
Ultimately, some speculator will buy the Olympic apartments to flip them for a profit, just as Quatar did in London. In any case, the critical point is this: Organizations survive by changing with the times. DuPont started out in gunpowder and wound up in nylons. The School District of Philadelphia started out in education, but clearly, its best future prospects lie elsewhere.