The snowjob to expand the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center is bad enough. Worse is that most of the legislators on Beacon Hill are falling for it.
The House overwhelmingly passed a $1.1 billion expansion bond last week. The Senate is scheduled to take up the legislation Thursday, after trimming $110 million from it over concerns of a giveaway to hotel developers.
President Therese Murray is a strong supporter of the expansion. So strong, in fact, that in a speech last month before the Boston Chamber of Commerce, she quoted verbatim the talking points of Massachusetts Convention Center Authority Jim Rooney, who says the expansion will vault the state into the top five convention destinations in the country and create thousands of jobs and $184 million of additional economic impact every year.
Calling it “critical” to support the expansion, Murray boasted it will make Massachusetts “a player on the world stage.” But all the available evidence suggests it’s highly unlikely that Massachusetts will be a player of that magnitude. It is much more likely we will get a white elephant.
The bump-out would increase the center’s exhibition space from 516,000 square feet to about 850,000 square feet. That would still pale in comparison to the 2.6 million square feet in Chicago’s McCormick Place, the 2 million square feet in convention centers in Orlando and Las Vegas, and the dozen or so other centers around the country with a million-plus square feet.
Competition sometimes prompts convention centers to virtually give away space to lure conventions, which pokes a hole in so-called economic impact.
Heywood Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of the new book, “Convention Center Follies,” said in a phone interview that convention space in the United States grew from 40 million square feet to 71 million square feet between 1990 and 2013, but tradeshow demand has been flat since 2000. Moreover, Boston’s expansion would occur alongside expansions planned or proposed in cities such as Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.
“There is nothing Rooney can do to make Boston a top-five convention destination,” Sanders said.
Joan Eisenstodt, a Washington-based national event planner, said competition sometimes prompts convention centers to virtually give away space to lure conventions, which pokes a hole in so-called economic impact. She also said a bigger Boston center may actually amplify Boston’s current weaknesses, such as our growing congestion.
“The miserable bus rides between hotels aren’t going to go away,” she said. “They are only going to get worse, especially at the end of the day when all you want to do is wash your face, call your kids, and go out to dinner.”
The risks of the expansion make long-time independent watchdogs such as Sam Tyler of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation wonder about other opportunities that are being missed. The authority says it will repay the bond through existing tourist taxes, but what if the Legislature was instead more creative about finding another $1 billion for public transportation or education?
“What’s of concern to me,” Widmer said, “is that there has not been a broader public discussion about the best use of limited dollars.”
Finally, some urban visionaries question the “big box” approach to economic development, especially for dense cities like Boston that already have robust tourism and strong core industries. Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution metropolitan program, said, “Your innovation economy and health sector are a very large apple to a very small banana of a convention center. For $1 billion, you are likely to get much more investing more in the former than the latter.”
Instead, Beacon Hill is about to approve a billion-dollar folly.