From the ballrooms of Back Bay hotels to floors of the city’s convention centers, it is the topic du jour among the hundreds of workers who make a living at these venues: What happens if the state-owned Hynes Convention Center gets sold?
Some get choked up just thinking about it. Others are angry. The timing feels cruel, they say. Functions and conferences have started to return, and many of these workers are back on the job after being unemployed for more than a year during the pandemic.
“That’s all people are talking about,” said Lucia Rodrigues, 53, who has been a banquet server at the Hynes and the Westin Copley hotel for two decades. “Everybody’s nervous. People started to think, ‘Is it gonna be like back in the pandemic? How am I gonna find another job?’ "
Governor Charlie Baker introduced a bill in 2019 to sell the Hynes because the decades-old Back Bay facility is becoming too expensive to maintain. The pandemic stalled that effort, but last week, the governor once again filed legislation to offload the Hynes and use the proceeds for affordable housing. It sits on prime real estate for redevelopment and could fetch hundreds of millions of dollars. The state has already stopped booking events at the Hynes after Dec. 31, 2023.
Rodrigues, like other members of Unite Here Local 26, believes closing the Hynes is a bad idea. Not only will it hurt those who work there and at nearby hotels, but the shops and restaurants that count on conference-goers as customers could also lose business.
“It’s like a gut punch,” said Donnell Beverly, 45, who has worked as a bar back at the Hynes for 16 years. “It’s going to be a lot of people affected.”
Unite Here is officially opposed to the sale but also recognizes it might not be able to stop it. The union represents about 200 food and beverage workers tied to the Hynes and several thousand more who work at Back Bay hotels, from the housekeepers to the bellhops.
The union, in a recent letter to legislators, indicated that if a sale happens, the state should ensure redevelopment includes 150,000 square feet of meeting space, a request the Back Bay Association and the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay have made, too.
The union is also pushing for the creation of two hardship funds — of at least $5 million each — in the event employees at the Hynes and hotels lose their jobs and wants displaced workers to have the right of first refusal for new jobs created on the Hynes site.
Carlos Aramayo, president of Unite Here Local 26, said good-paying jobs allow many of his members, who live in Black and brown communities from East Boston to Roxbury, to keep a roof over their heads.
“You’re going to eliminate a bunch of good jobs and a really significant chunk of the Greater Boston-area hospitality economy that gives people jobs so they can afford housing .... that’s a little nuts as a calculation,” Aramayo said. “Rob Peter to pay Paul.”
Representative Jay Livingstone, whose district includes the Back Bay, said constituents have mixed feelings about a sale. Some want the Hynes out of government hands to end the years of flip-flopping over what to do with the facility ― every governor seems to have a new idea for it.
Others want to wait until 2023 when a new governor might view the Hynes sale differently. That happened during the last gubernatorial transition. Deval Patrick signed off on a $1 billion expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, but Baker put the brakes on it months after taking office.
Livingstone worries about the notoriously lengthy time it takes to build in Boston and what would happen during that period.
“One of the most important things is to make sure all the workers who depend on the Hynes, either directly or indirectly at a nearby business, are not forgotten,” Livingstone said. “Development projects of that complexity, from the start of permitting to end of construction, is typically five years at the fastest.”
He is being conservative. A Hynes project could easily take a decade, and that’s if the economy keeps humming. How many people could be without work — either temporarily or permanently, and for how long — is a bit of a moving target.
The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which operates both the Hynes and the BCEC, contends that staff at the Hynes will be transferred to the BCEC. Many workers already do shifts at both locations. That sounds grand — if enough conventions come to town. And what about the thousands of other hospitality workers in the Back Bay whose shifts are tied to whether the Hynes hosts conferences?
The case for redeveloping the Hynes into a massive mixed-use project — be it office, retail, housing, or labs — is that there will be jobs galore on the other side. A build-out of the site could generate an estimated 5,000 construction jobs, and eventually, the new development could create 7,200 permanent jobs compared with 1,700 now, according to a recent economic analysis by MCCA and the Baker administration.
Still, the state recognizes there could be short-term pain. Its newly filed legislation proposes that 20 percent of the Hynes proceeds be used to “mitigate the impacts of the sale,” including the effect on private employees, residents, and businesses. (The rest would go toward building affordable housing — 50 percent in Boston and 30 percent outside the city.)
If I am reading the political tea leaves correctly, there seems to be less handwringing over whether the Hynes should be sold and more related to the conditions under which such a transaction could take place.
Setting aside hardship funds is a no-brainer. That’s, in part, how small businesses in the downtown and the North End survived the Big Dig. They received money to help with marketing, signage, and other improvements.
As for meeting space, Baker’s legislation gives a nod to the need for space for meetings, gatherings, or public use, but hardly provides the kind of guarantee the hotel union and the neighborhood were hoping for. The big Back Bay hotels — the Marriott, Westin, and Sheraton — are all connected to the Hynes and were intended to house thousands of convention-goers.
“This was built as an ecosystem,” said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association. “By making sure you add meeting space, it is making sure that the ecosystem can continue.”
So let’s end where we started ― with the people who can least afford to lose a paycheck.
Rodrigues, the banquet server, worries that she won’t find a better job. As an immigrant from Cape Verde, she started working in fish factories in Boston, but a union job at a hotel gave her a steady schedule and pay. In a normal year, she estimates she can earn about $2,000 a week.
“That was a life changer to this day,” Rodrigues said. “I’m still grateful.”
Her 62-year-old sister is a housekeeper at another Back Bay hotel, the Colonnade.
“How is she going to find another job?” Rodrigues said. “She’s not going to get enough hours.”
As I’ve written before, I’m all for exploring the sale of the Hynes. There’s a chance to do something extraordinary. This is Back Bay’s Big Dig — with all the good, bad, and ugly that comes with that analogy.
In depressing the Central Artery, Boston endured years of construction pain, but the project brought us new tunnels, the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and the Seaport District.
Hotels and businesses will fight to stay alive. It’s the people displaced by change that are too often left behind. We see them now. Let’s not ignore them.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.