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Convention center expansion questions loom

Many lures might entice more visitors to Massachusetts: better public transit, cheaper hotels, safer streets, bigger festivals. The Legislature, though, is betting its chips on the vast convention center in South Boston, and appears to be on the verge of throwing another $1 billion at the sprawling building in hopes of attracting more conventioneers.

The goals seem so appealing — who doesn’t want to create jobs and showcase Boston to the world? — that the convention-center bill has largely avoided the public debate such a big subsidy requires. But that scrutiny is overdue. To put the $1 billion in perspective, last year the Legislature and governor bickered for months over spending a similar amount on badly needed transportation upgrades that would have generated broad economic and environmental benefits across much of the Commonwealth. In the case of Boston’s convention center, the spending may seem easier to swallow because construction would be financed with existing hotel taxes paid by out-of-towners. But hotel-tax money is a public asset that could also support other worthy projects or initiatives. It falls to the Legislature to make sure the money is spent as wisely as possible, and with the maximum accountability.

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So before the Legislature finalizes the bill, there needs to be a more thorough analysis of its real costs and benefits. Even if lawmakers endorse the convention center’s goals, committing another $1 billion may not be the most effective way to achieve them. At the least, the convention center must come up with a more inspiring plan for using the money and take more steps to fit the expansion into a broader vision for the growing South Boston waterfront area.

The case for expansion from 516,000 square feet to roughly 850,000 square feet boils down to competition: Other cities have bigger convention centers, and Boston loses business to them. Not only would those visitors spend money at local restaurants and hotels, but they would boost the city’s national and international profile. A significant number of the largest conventions are in health care and IT, areas with strong connections to the Massachusetts economy. Further, convention center head James Rooney reminds critics, it was always assumed that the convention center would require subsidies, but that the broader economic impact would make it worthwhile.

That economic impact seems to have been overstated, though, and it’s worrying that legislators seem so quick to accept what are politely termed the “intangible” benefits of convention centers rather than the demonstrable ones that might come from using the hotel-tax money for other public needs. The fact that so many other cities are also subsidizing convention centers should give legislators pause before joining an arms race that has no end in sight.

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The plan Rooney has offered also leaves a lot to be desired architecturally. The convention center is already an imposing, hangar-like structure, and the blueprints look like more of the same. The design for a public space to host neighborhood gatherings is so unformed as to be almost insulting to the community; it seems to be there mainly to deflect nagging questions from Boston legislators. A better approach would integrate the convention center into the neighborhood, which has seen astonishing growth over the past decade since the convention center opened. Plans should include more ground-level retail, transit connections, and space for non-tourist-related activities like shows, concerts, or even community gardens.

Ultimately, those goals can all complement one another. If the convention center fits in better with South Boston, it’ll give a more vibrant impression of the city to convention-goers and make the economic expectations the project hinges on more likely to come true. And if the Legislature seriously weighs all its options for encouraging economic development with hotel-tax receipts, it would bolster confidence that a vote to fund the convention center has more than just inertia on its side.

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