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Golden fleecing
Budget overruns, design cuts, questionable viability — should Mayor Menino scrap the South Boston convention center?


BOSTON IS OFTEN called the Athens of America, a nickname that evokes the glory days of ancient Greece. It makes more sense, however, to draw a comparison with the Athens of today: a city that’s woefully mismanaged and heading for fiscal disaster.

For proof, look no further than Mayor Tom Menino’s Parthenon — the South Boston convention center. Our own Pericles has placed this $800 million public-works behemoth at the center of his agenda for the city. From the start, Menino has taken great pains to get the neighborhood of South Boston to agree to the project — in 1998, he went so far as to sign a Memorandum of Understanding that would have given the South Boston Betterment Trust a previously unheard-of 51 percent of the linkage benefits paid to the city by developers. (A community affected by development typically sees around 20 percent of these funds. When the agreement came under fire last year, Menino walked away from it.) As Boston city councilor Michael Ross notes: “The mayor really created the sense of urgency for the convention center. Something like this only comes along once in an administration.”

Even as Menino continues to cheerlead for the convention center — most recently by installing his trusted aide James Rooney as head of the project — evidence continues to mount that things are simply not working out as planned. In January, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority’s board ordered that work cease because the project was $100 million over budget. In March, the Boston Herald reported on the fast-spending ways of convention-center officials — including a high-priced jaunt to Monte Carlo to attend a conclave with other industry executives. Meanwhile, severance pay for ousted officials has cost the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (MCCA) about $500,000. A study conducted by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, released last month, concluded that the market for large exhibition centers such as this one has gone the way of writing on stone tablets. Three previous Pioneer studies have raised questions about this project and the convention-center market in general. Finally, as a result of the sluggish economy, lenders are less interested in building the hotels necessary to support the center. The Boston Herald reported last week that the German HypoVereins Banks is having second thoughts about funding a hotel project in the Back Bay, and the Pritzker family has had difficulty obtaining financing for its massive waterfront hotel and development.

Meanwhile, the common-sense objections to a new convention center in Boston have not changed. In order for Boston to thrive in the convention market, it has to beat out locales like Las Vegas, Orlando, and San Diego — places that are less expensive than Boston and have better weather. Think about it. Unless they’re booking for June, July, August, or September, convention planners have no assurance that weather conditions in Boston will allow attendees to get in and out of Logan Airport. This all but guarantees that the center will sit vacant for large portions of the year.

Couple that with the fact that hotel rooms are much more expensive — and scarce — in Boston than in other cities, and it’s hard to see why any large group would bring its convention here. As has been reported elsewhere, the National Black MBA Association has already shelved plans to come to the South Boston convention center because hotel space is so short. Charles Chieppo of the Pioneer Institute cites a 1997 survey of meeting planners done for Washington, DC, in which Boston ranked seventh on a list of eight cities — just ahead of New York — for its desirability as a convention site. Boston and New York are clearly great cities; but they’re too expensive, and too difficult to negotiate, to host major conventions.

In an attempt to contain the $100 million overrun, the MCCA has scaled the project down to 515,000 square feet from 600,000. The authority has also reduced the size of an income-generating garage and the number of parking spots. In practical terms, the folks at Pioneer argue that the center will probably attract 35 events each year at most, rather than the 64 that planners calculate would be necessary for its success. As a result, the center is likely to take in only a third of the $75 million per year that was previously forecast — which will barely cover its debt-service costs, say critics.

To date, no one has been willing to put the brakes on this project. This don’t-mention-the-emperor-has-no-clothes approach to managing public-works projects in Massachusetts (Big Dig, anyone?) calls to mind what former state treasurer Joe Malone said to Boston magazine scribe Phil Primack in September 2000: “[It] gets into the tribalism of this state. There’s a whole establishment in this state, not a very big one, but it bought on to this thing [the Big Dig] and if you were a critic, you were ... put down by a chorus of voices.”

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