WITH CONSTRUCTION of the stateís $800 millionĖplus, 515,000-square-foot convention center on the South Boston waterfront drawing to a close, legislators must confront an obvious but difficult question: what to do with the cityís other convention facility, the comparatively modest John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, located adjacent to the Prudential Center. According to a July 1 report in the Boston Herald, the taxpayer-supported Hynes will likely end this year with a $15.5 million deficit. In a tight economy, exemplified by a nationwide decline in convention business, it seems clear that the Hynes must go. Cities facing similar predicaments, such as Washington, DC, have decided to shut down their existing convention halls when the new, larger ones are complete.
Three gubernatorial candidates ó Democrats Robert Reich and Steve Grossman and Republican Mitt Romney ó have already suggested as much.
Reich made his position clear in a straight-talk May speech, saying, "It doesnít make sense for Massachusetts to compete with itself for much-needed convention and tourism business."
Given that this town isnít big enough for two convention centers, closing the smaller, older facility is the only sensible course. But shutting down the Hynes isnít the neat solution it first appears to be. The city will suffer from its loss, while the waterfront facilityís future is far from financially secure.
As convention centers go, Hynes advocates point out, the Boylston Street facility has its virtues. The relatively compact structure, which boasts 193,000 square feet of exhibition space, is ideally situated in the heart of one of the cityís most desirable areas. Conventioneers have proximity to the shops and restaurants on Newbury and Boylston Streets ó establishments that may suffer if the Hynes closes. Sadly, more for political than rational economic reasons, Boston mayor Tom Menino and state leaders failed to heed sound arguments about the Hynesís importance to the Back Bay economy when it mattered ó before plans for the waterfront convention center were finalized in 1997. And no public official called for a permanent halt to the waterfront project when the new convention centerís board temporarily suspended construction last year, in the wake of reports of potential construction-cost overruns.
Unlike the Hynes, the waterfront facility sits in whatís currently an urban wasteland. While developing Bostonís waterfront is an admirable goal, in reality the area is now a far cry from the attractive tourist destination the new convention centerís boosters hope it will eventually become. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, chosen to build a hotel to house conventioneers at the facility, has been unable to secure financing, although a new development group may step in to save the project soon. The Pritzker waterfront-development plan, which would have populated the Fan Pier area with mixed-use commercial space, is still on hold ó or dead, some suggest. Aside from the tons of steel erected for the convention center, the area remains largely the barren, industrial wasteland itís been for decades. So in many ways, the larger new convention center will have less to offer than the old ó at least in the short run.
The troubled economics of convention planning add yet another layer of complication. Even if the Hynes closes when the waterfront convention center becomes fully operational in 2004 (most likely too late to host the Democratic National Convention, if Boston is chosen as its site), the new facility will have trouble booking itself out of the red. And if the Hynes remains open, it will be impossible to keep the waterfront center afloat. A March 2001 study released by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research showed that the market for the types of large exhibitions the South Boston center was designed to host has collapsed. However great a money-loser the Hynes may be, the waterfront convention center will lose even more unless it can attract smaller conventions and so-called gate shows, such as book fairs and bridal shows, that have until now been perfectly content to use the Hynes and other facilities. If the state keeps both convention facilities open, the new center will have to cannibalize the Hynes ó a grim reality unaffected by the fact that the 1997 legislation that enabled the waterfront development specifically forbade such poaching.
Convention-center backers ó not to mention the economy ó have left city and state planners with little choice. Holding on to the Hynes while trying to build up the waterfront center will mean only one thing: two convention centers doomed to fail. And the easily foreseeable costs of supporting two bleeding convention centers outweighs the bite that closing the Hynes will take out of the Back Bay.
The disposition of the Hynes Boylston Street property is an all-important question that should be the next big debate in city politics. The concerns of neighboring businesses and the community must be taken into account. The state may have to revisit the idea of creating a "slingshot ramp" ó a turnaround ramp off the Mass Pike in the Back Bay ó that would make it easier for conventioneers to travel back and forth between the cluster of hotels in the Back Bay and the waterfront convention center.
Selling the Hynes offers a tempting prospect, since even in the current economic downturn, the property would command a substantial price. But it canít be too hasty. Steve Grossman, for one, has advocated a moderate approach to selling the real estate, cautioning that a quick sale could ill serve the cityís long-term interests. Hereís another good business-savvy idea: the state might convince a private developer to lease the construction air rights above the Hynes and to renovate the space, so that Massachusetts taxpayers can profit from future rent on a regular basis.
Of course, any real-estate arrangement would have to serve the best interests of the city, most likely resulting in a mix of retail, commercial, and residential uses (including at least some affordable housing). But these questions can wait for another day. For now, itís vital that any decision about what to do with the Hynes is not made precipitously. Itís obvious that the state and city must get out of the business of throwing good money after bad. The real question at the moment is whether anyone in city or state government is able ó and willing ó to take a leadership role in solving this bear of an economic problem.
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