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Convention center director leaves no loose ends

With a grip on the details, Jim Rooney steers a massive expansion

Jim Rooney has played major governmental roles for decades.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Jim Rooney has played major governmental roles for decades.

Jim Rooney was fuming.

His legislation to spend $1 billion to expand the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center was under attack. Opponents had accused him of sneaking $110 million of subsidies into the bill for a private hotel project. Amendments were under consideration. The process was becoming a mess.

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But rather than fight the changes, the powerful head of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority took a different approach: “What’s the easiest way to just put that to bed?” Rooney said in a recent interview. “Agree to language that says a [hotel subsidy] can’t be in there.”

It was a classic Rooney fix, pragmatism at work behind the scenes. The state Senate passed the bill days later, and Governor Deval Patrick is expected to sign it into law soon. Rooney’s five-year quest to expand the convention center is nearly complete.

That project will increase the size of New England’s largest building by 60 percent, adding 1.3 million square feet of exhibit space, ballrooms, and conference rooms. It will also give Rooney control of a huge pile of taxpayer money, thousands of new jobs, and prime real estate in one of the most rapidly developing neighborhoods in the country.

The success of the expansion plan is Rooney’s latest triumph in a government career spanning more than three decades. Over that time, he has quietly become one of the state’s most influential public figures, without ever having run for elective office.

A former state transportation official, Rooney briefly ran the MBTA and helped create the finance plan for the $16 billion Big Dig, which brought new highway connections to the convention center’s doorstep. He also was chief of staff for Thomas M. Menino when Menino was Boston’s mayor.

‘Boston has demonstrated an ability to competehead-to-head with any city in the world for conventionsand meetings. I’ve seen it. I believe it. We can win.’

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Since he proposed the convention center’s expansion in 2009, Rooney has carefully guided the project through every stage of the process. He convened the community panel that recommended the expansion in the first place. He wrote the legislation to pay for it, and then he edited the bill during its final stages.

“The result was never in doubt,” said Charles Chieppo, a senior fellow at the Pioneer Institute, a policy research group that has opposed the expansion project. “Jim did what he does best. He basically took something that did less business than anticipated and parlayed it into a rousing success, thanks to very assiduous PR work.”

Rooney, not one to let such statements go unanswered, disagreed vehemently. He said the expansion proposal has been scaled down from its original version. He cited an industry study that said Boston has increased its convention market share faster than any other city.

Rooney, 56, relishes the opportunity to prove critics wrong, and he hopes to do it again in the coming years. His challenge now is to attract more business to Boston as cities from San Diego to Orlando to Las Vegas are considering or already pursuing expansions.

“I come at this with an unapologetic belief in this city,” Rooney said as he sat in a conference room at the cavernous convention center on a recent afternoon. “Boston has demonstrated an ability to compete head-to-head with any city in the world for conventions and meetings. I’ve seen it. I believe it. We can win.”

He said the expansion will make Boston one of the nation’s top five convention destinations by attracting larger meetings and hosting simultaneous shows that cannot be accommodated now. He has also advocated for public money to help build more hotels around the facility.

Even the project’s critics praise Rooney’s managerial and political abilities, skills he honed growing up in a large South Boston family. He is the second of 11 sons and began working at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority as a track laborer while attending Harvard University.

After graduation, he worked as a tour guide in Europe but quickly returned for an entry-level management job at the MBTA. People who worked with Rooney there said he managed to impress his bosses without seeming overly ambitious or rubbing co-workers the wrong way.

“Strivers don’t get very far at the T,” said Tom Glynn, a former MBTA general manager who now runs the Massachusetts Port Authority. “Jim distinguished himself by being creative and innovative.”

For example, Glynn said, Rooney reorganized the T’s system for renovating stations — once a simple alphabetical rotation — to introduce more frequent upgrades to ensure those with the heaviest traffic got more attention. “That sounds very obvious,” Glynn said. “But he took something very basic and turned it into an asset, and he’s done that over and over again in his career.”

Essdras M Suarez/Globe staff

The success of the South Boston convention center expansion plan is Jim Rooney’s latest triumph in a government career spanning more than three decades.

Rooney became the T’s general manager at the end of the Dukakis administration but was bumped from the position when Governor William Weld took office. He then was appointed chief financial officer at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

His lengthy service in the state’s transportation bureaucracy helped boost Rooney’s compensation. Although still working in state government, he collects a $68,000 pension from the T on top of a $257,500 annual salary.

With the expansion of the convention center all but inevitable, Rooney will also increase his influence over the development of the rapidly growing waterfront Innovation District. The addition will be built along Cypher and D streets over several years and create an estimated 4,700 construction jobs, as well as another 2,100 permanent jobs. Rooney is also pushing for the construction of at least 1,200 hotel rooms on Massport-owned property along Summer Street. The authority will solicit bids for that this summer, and Rooney has said public financial assistance might be necessary.

Rapid growth of the complex has raised patronage questions from opponents about the potential for more convention center jobs to go to South Boston residents or to friends and relatives of lawmakers who back the expansion.

Rooney acknowledged that he gets plenty of “referrals” but said the conventional center has proven its professionalism. It has won an industry designation as a top-rated facility and other awards. He defended the authority’s hiring practices in a series of e-mails to the Globe.

“Many of the opportunities in our industry are middle class, middle skilled, blue-collar jobs,” he wrote. “That is not to say that there are not professional opportunities in management, accounting and sales for example. If the accusation is that this is about me creating jobs for working class people, I’ll accept that charge.”

Through all the criticisms of the proposed expansion, Rooney said, he has never doubted it will pay off for the state. He said it will produce at least $184 million a year in additional spending by visitors on hotels and meals, but will have a bigger impact by connecting people in industries crucial to the state’s economy.

“You and I sitting here have no idea how to measure how much knowledge and information exchange goes on out there and what business deals are being made,” said Rooney, nodding toward the main exhibit floor. “I believe it matters for Boston’s broader role in the world economy.”

When he was reviewing the expansion plans, Michael Widmer, head of the business-backed Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said he was less concerned about the city’s role in the world than the project’s benefit to the local economy.

Even today, he said, he is unsure of what that return will be. The project seems to be a sensible investment, Widmer said.

“He’s made a persuasive argument,” he said. “But how many additional conventions will we get? The truth is we don’t know. Jim Rooney doesn’t know. Nobody knows. Whether this will pay for itself in some reasonable way, we’ll know that in another 10 years.”

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.
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