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Whereís Menino? (continued)


STATE LEADERS, on the other hand, have been taking the new climate seriously ó at least as far as the economy is concerned. Governor Swift convened an emergency summit last week to address the collapse of tourism, which is the stateís third-largest industry. Last week, the Swift administration also gathered a host of veterans from the last fiscal downturn ó former Dukakis aide Frank Keefe, former state senator and Senate Ways and Means Committee chair Patricia McGovern, and others ó to discuss how to handle the current one. In the meantime, legislative leaders, including House Speaker Tom Finneran and Senate president Tom Birmingham, have expressed concern about the declining economy.

But as other politicians are scrambling for the right words and strategies, Menino has yet to do or say anything indicating that he understands Bostonís new situation. Heís just hectoring the public to go out and buy things, as he did last Saturday, and continuing to pursue his large-scale building projects. As one veteran of Bostonís business and political scene put it: " Heís got to shift gears and get out of the master-edifice complex. Itís less relevant right now. "

If nothing else, he would be wise to look at ongoing plans for the convention center and new ballpark. Authorities have already spent nearly $300 million ó primarily for land costs ó on the convention center. The expected price tag for the complex is now $800 million, and it is likely to grow. In other words, if work on the project were to stop today, we would save at least $500 million. Even more money would be saved over the years, since the city and state wouldnít incur the expense of keeping up a million-square-foot building.

Besides, if an argument can be made that thereís no longer need for an additional runway at Logan Airport because air travel is expected to decline 20 percent, then surely this same downturn will eliminate the need for a second convention center. Everyone on the national scene seems to be aware that the US is in for a long struggle against terrorism. No one can say how long, but it could be four years, five years, perhaps even longer. A protracted war on terrorism also means that weíll be likely to see more attacks on American soil. Thereís no way around it: a series of bloody incidents means that people arenít going to want to travel.

Financial analysts know this. During the stock marketís worst week in 60 years, one of the few bright spots was in teleconferencing. Shares of Polycom, for example, a company that specializes in videoconferencing, shot up 40 percent the same week that the Dow dropped 14 percent. Although teleconferencing technology was available before the attacks, few companies had any incentive to use it when relatively low-cost business travel made face-to-face meetings easy. No more. Now that many corporate executives are voicing reluctance to go on business trips and several financial-services firms have issued de facto bans on traveling, according to Wall Street sources, companies may learn to like the video screen. (Even Bush and his cabinet have gotten into the act. Over the weekend, many newspapers ran photos of Bush conducting meetings from Camp David via videoconference.)

Or consider Gretchen Morgensonís " Market Watch " column in last Sundayís New York Times: " Grim Realities, Here To Stay. " Morgenson interviewed an investment expert named Martin Whitman, who spoke of a " permanent impairment " to the economy. " We will never go back to the way things were in the airline industry, hotels, " Whitman said. " Things may stay bad for an indefinite period. "

For City Councilor Maura Hennigan of Jamaica Plain, who is running for an at-large seat this year, the realities are in plain sight. " Iím not going to close my eyes to everything thatís gone on in the country and pretend this isnít going to have a huge impact on the convention center and the waterfront, " she says.

Convention-center boosters counter that by the time the project is finally completed ó in six or seven years ó hostilities will probably be over. And they note the projectís importance to the cityís waterfront. " The convention center is the centerpiece of the revitalization of the waterfront district, " says Pat Moscaritolo, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, on New England Cable Newsís NewsNight last week. But thatís a pretty big gamble to risk the cityís fiscal health on.

Meninoís allies could try to look to history to justify feeding millions of dollars into a massive construction project in the middle of an economic downturn. In New York City, developers built the Empire State Building just as the Depression hit. Nobody knew what sort of demand there would be for the building while it was being built. In retrospect, however, that didnít pose as much of a risk as the convention center does in todayís Boston. Manhattan is a narrow island with a finite amount of land to build on. The solution there was to build up. (That logic led to the construction of the massive World Trade Center as well.) In the case of the Empire State Building, developers knew that the land shortage would eventually make the project pay off. In Boston, though, much seems to work against the center (see " Golden Fleecing, " News and Features, April 5). Above all, thereís no popular support for a convention center. And since almost every available piece of land is used for either office space or housing, it will be difficult to provide enough affordable hotel rooms for conventioneers. If anything, it seems unlikely that hoteliers, who were supposed to have added 2400 rooms in Boston already, will have any desire to risk money on new hotels in this climate. In fact, the Herald reported September 21, the stock price of the company slated to construct a major hotel for the convention center, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, plummeted last week ó a sign that the company wonít raise the $300 million it needs to build the new hotel. And without a ready supply of nearby hotels, big conventioneers will not want to gamble on Boston. " Iím guessing everybodyís planning is on hold, " says one development source.

The convention center isnít the only potential drain on the cityís financial coffers. In July 2000, the mayor committed $200 million in city funds to building a new Fenway Park for the Boston Red Sox. (The offices of the Boston Phoenix at 126 Brookline Avenue will be displaced if the Red Sox are allowed to build a new park in the Fenway neighborhood. To read our coverage of the issue, visit www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/features/fenway.html.) If the city is entering a period of economic lethargy and city-budget woes mount, how much sense will it make to give $200 million to a profit-making enterprise like the Sox? This is doubly true when at least one group of the potential bidders for the team ó a group that includes television producer Tom Werner and business executive Les Otten ó is shopping a proposal to rebuild Fenway on its current site. That proposal wouldnít require the millions of dollars for land costs that the current plan, which has been heavily backed by Menino, entails.

NONE OF the talk about a worsening economy ó talk that in Massachusetts has focused on the devastated tourism and travel industries ó takes into account how much money the city and state might have to spend on beefed-up security. Itís not just a financial question, either. Itís also one of tone. With America about to be engaged in a knock-down, drag-out struggle, Meninoís single-minded focus on grand edifices (even as he seizes on the attack as a chance to kill the new Logan runway) seems frivolous and irresponsible.

Granted, it is more than part of Meninoís job to serve as the cityís primary cheerleader. And other politicians, including Giuliani and Bush, have won kudos for their determination to get Americans back to normal and working again. But both Giuliani and Bush have been engrossed in the current crisis as well. Giuliani has the World Trade Center rescue effort to contend with, and Bush has the war. Instead of mindless cheerleading, Menino ought to be battling the state to ensure Loganís safety and making sure that Bostonís defenses against terrorism are adequate. He seems all too eager to say everythingís back to normal.

As far as Bostonís economy goes, the events of September 11 should tell the mayor to get back to basics. Boston still has its foundations in health care, higher education, and, to a lesser extent, money management. A sound wartime economic plan would focus on shoring up these bedrocks of the cityís economy. A wise plan would involve the city more closely with its universities, and work to make sure the international students who spent so much money here during the 1990s donít simply abandon the city. It also might be a good time for Menino to get as cozy with the cityís leaders in education, health care, and finance ó Boston Universityís John Silber, Harvardís Lawrence Summers, Partners Healthcareís Sam Thayer, and Fidelityís Peter Lynch or Ned Johnson ó as he has been with Bostonís development community in recent years.

Having acknowledged the cityís new economic realities, Menino could then play to his strengths as a community builder. He set the right tone when he helped organize the multi-ethnic, interreligious vigil on City Hall Plaza. The mayor could take that spirit one step further by reaching out to the heavily Arab community in Roslindale and bringing all Bostonians together.

But none of this is possible as long as Menino remains in denial.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell@phx.com

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Issue Date: September 27 - October 4, 2001


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