If you build it, they will come — or not.
After all, South Boston isn’t some cornfield in Iowa. The current proposed expansion of Boston’s major convention facility in the Seaport represents a $400 million public investment. And it comes at a time when convention business has not recovered from its pandemic slump, business travel generally is down, remote meetings have never been more popular or accepted, and a possible recession looms.
Can members of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority Board possibly be serious? How many empty meeting rooms and half-empty cavernous facilities does one city need at a time when no one can predict if the convention business will ever rebound?
Serving as cheerleaders and enablers are lawmakers who have already baked the expansion scheme into a pending House version of an economic development bill.
The Boston Convention & Exhibition Center was still new when the first plans surfaced for a $1 billion expansion plan, approved by the Legislature in 2014. When Governor Charlie Baker gained control of the convention authority board in 2015, he halted the project, saying, “The environment has changed greatly in the five years since this proposal was first introduced, and the Seaport District has experienced an economic boom.”
By 2018, another expansion plan surfaced, with a $500 million price tag, but that one was predicated on the sale of its older, smaller, and antiquated (in convention terms) sibling, the Hynes Convention Center in Back Bay. The COVID-19 pandemic killed that effort in the cradle — even as the BCEC did yeoman service as a 1,000 bed field hospital for COVID patients and respite center for the homeless.
Today’s somewhat more modest $400 million expansion, which would add some 200,000 square feet to the BCEC’s existing 700,000 square feet, would be centered on D Street, adjoining the popular Lawn on D. It would include a 75,000-square-foot “multipurpose” space (a ballroom by any other name could still be a ballroom), a glassed-in entry, a new kitchen, loading areas, and an underground tunnel to connect the convention center to the Omni Hotel across Summer Street.
MCCA executive director David Gibbons said the expansion would be funded through some $250 million in tourism-related taxes (on hotels, car rentals, restaurants, and tours) dedicated to the convention center fund and what he called future surpluses.
The idea behind this and any convention center is to generate ancillary economic activity, loosely defined as “heads on beds.” The architect of this latest master plan, Populous, projects the addition will generate 140,000 more hotel nights a year in Boston and Cambridge.
Now, rosy scenarios are often part of the hard sell on such plans. In halting that 2014 expansion, Baker administration officials noted at the time the BCEC never came close to the 670,000 hotel nights it was expected to generate. The BCEC’s current average is 415,000. But somehow a ballroom, a kitchen, a loading dock, and an underground tunnel are projected to increase heads on beds by more than one-third.
Color us skeptical.
Populous, a Kansas City, Mo., based architectural firm, has led the master planning effort for a BCEC expansion since 2018.
“The competition for non-local conventions and trade shows nationally is intense — leading most communities that compete with Boston to invest significantly in convention facilities, hotels and other aspects of the destination,” that 2018 master plan noted.
It cited specifically the “billions” being invested in convention facilities by competitors in Orlando, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, all of which were later halted because of the pandemic, Orlando’s permanently so. The report did not mention that all three were also Populous clients.
Okay, no one could have predicted the pandemic, but how about, just for once, a healthy dose of realism and transparency when it comes to the predictions made to justify these projects?
Populous is in the business of building venues around the country and internationally. It has a vested interest in the future of the convention industry, and that makes it an unlikely source of objective information. And analysts who don’t make a living building convention centers have a gloomier outlook.
“I suspect the [convention] industry will never fully recover,” Heywood Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told Bloomberg News. Sanders, who literally wrote the book on convention centers (“Convention Center Follies”), noted that business at the nation’s four largest convention centers — Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Orlando — was already slipping prior to the pandemic.
Some legislators, however, remain in thrall to the notion that bigger is better. They buy into the premise that 200,000 square feet, at a cost of $400 million, will somehow allow Boston to successfully compete with Orlando. Meanwhile a House committee has engaged in a blatant act of political cowardice and put off until 2023 any potential sale of the Hynes Convention Center, with its dwindling number of events and rising need for capital improvements, estimated at some $200 million.
There’s nothing wrong with investing in the state’s economic competitiveness, nothing wrong with seeking to attract visitors and tourism, nothing wrong with long-term thinking. But for the kind of money the BCEC is planning, surely the state can find safer and more impactful investments. Signing off on an expansion of the BCEC and halting the sale of the Hynes in a time of economic uncertainty would be an exercise in fiscal irresponsibility that sensible lawmakers should scuttle while they still have a chance.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.