Governor Maura Healey on Thursday appointed seven new members to the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority board, asserting control of a powerful tourism engine for Boston in a move that likely ensures that the Hynes Convention Center will stay open for a long time to come.
The Baker administration had previously sought to close the Hynes and position its prime Back Bay location for redevelopment, but that effort had stalled in the face of opposition. Now, two prominent critics of the Hynes closure are among Healey’s new appointees to the MCCA board.
Less clear, however, is the fate of a long-awaited expansion of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, a project that has been discussed in fits and starts at the MCCA for at least a decade.
As governor, Healey controls a majority of the board’s 13 seats, although she waited about six months into her tenure to make her own appointments and to sweep out most of predecessor Charlie Baker’s appointments. Two of the newcomers played key roles in fighting the MCCA’s previous plan to close the Hynes: Meg Mainzer-Cohen, head of the Back Bay Association, and Carlos Aramayo, president of the union for hotel and hospitality workers, Unite Here Local 26.
By last fall, that opposition led convention center executive director David Gibbons to publicly all but give up on the Hynes closure, deciding instead to focus on long-postponed but expensive renovations to the Back Bay facility.
Now — with the fate of the Hynes seemingly settled — the new board will need to decide whether to proceed with Gibbons’s vision for a scaled-down addition to the BCEC, or some other expansion design for the larger South Boston convention center.
Gibbons, who was hired early in the Baker administration and is under contract through the end of 2024, issued a brief statement saying he has worked directly with many of Healey’s appointees and he’s “excited for the collective expertise these members will bring” to the MCCA board.
Healey has not publicly taken a position yet on expanding the BCEC. A spokesperson said the administration “looks forward to working with management and the new board members to determine the best future for the BCEC and adjacent properties.”
Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said he remains hopeful that some sort of expansion could be lined up under the new board membership.
Rooney led the convention center authority before joining the chamber in 2015, and helped shepherd a roughly $1 billion expansion plan for the BCEC through the Legislature before Baker shelved the project. Rooney said that the more recent efforts to expand the BCEC did not get far primarily because of inadequate community and political engagement, and that Healey will ensure a much more inclusive process.
“Boston should be competing at the top tier for . . . conventions, and I think we need to regain that kind of focus,” Rooney said. “The infamous pause button was pressed in 2015. It’s eight years later. We’ve had proposals to sell the Hynes, not sell the Hynes, expand the BCEC, not expand the BCEC, RFPs that have been put out and withdrawn. We need to inject some stability and purpose back into the MCCA. I’m confident this board will lead that effort.”
Along with Aramayo and Mainzer-Cohen, new board members include two top officials in former mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration: Emme Handy, who served as his chief financial officer and now works at the Broad Institute, and who will take over as chair; and Aisha Miller, head of civic engagement under Walsh and now vice president of permitting at development firm Related Beal.
The other three new members are Sheena Collier, an event planner and founder of the Collier Connection and Boston While Black; Gwill York, managing director of Lighthouse Capital Partners; and Xiomara Albán DeLobato, vice president at the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council. Two other gubernatorial appointees will return to the board: Paul Sacco, head of the Massachusetts Lodging Association, and Cindy Brown, chief executive of Boston Duck Tours, representing the lodging and tourism industries, respectively.
There are also two mayoral appointees, Michelle Consalvo and Michael Donovan, and two ex-officio members — Massachusetts administration and finance secretary Matthew Gorzkowicz and Boston chief financial officer Ashley Groffenberger. The board seats are unpaid positions.
The Healey administration’s lineup makes the MCCA board more diverse at a time when the authority has come under scrutiny about hiring and promotion of people of color, particularly among the most well-paid members of the nearly 400-person workforce.
“It’s a diverse board with folks bringing in a lot of different perspectives to the discussion of the convention center authority, and what its future should be,” Aramayo said.
The authority oversees three convention centers: the flagship BCEC, the Hynes, and the MassMutual Center in Springfield. The authority also controls the three-level garage under Boston Common.
“The mission for the Mass. Convention Center Authority is to create economic activity for the state and to have the assets of the Hynes, the BCEC, and Springfield achieve their highest potential,” Mainzer-Cohen said. “It’s important for the MCCA to have a balanced approach to booking meetings and conferences in all three facilities and to make sure they are all working at optimum capacity.”
In 2015, soon after Baker took office for his first term, he also replaced most of the board, while pausing plans for the massive, $1 billion expansion of the BCEC that Rooney had spearheaded.
The idea of expanding the South Boston convention center resurfaced in 2019, when Baker and Gibbons proposed offering the Hynes site to developers. That was put on hiatus amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and community pushback, but it resurfaced last year as Baker’s tenure was drawing to a close. The Hynes proposal never got far in the Legislature, as lawmakers who represent the Back Bay were not on board.
So Gibbons began planning renovations to modernize the Hynes, while looking to fund a $400 million BCEC expansion along D Street, overlooking the Lawn on D, with the convention center authority’s existing stream of tourism tax revenue.
Now, after battling to save the Hynes, Mainzer-Cohen and Aramayo will have a say in the future of both the Back Bay convention hall and the BCEC — as well as possibly the fate of roughly 30 acres around the BCEC that could be developed, including 6-plus acres that the MCCA has already put out to bid. (Notably, Related Beal has previously expressed an interest in that land; the spokesperson for Healey said Miller, the Related Beal executive named to the MCCA board, will “consider recusal on a case-by-case basis.”)
“I think [the new board members] are going to be really thoughtful about development and growth,” Aramayo said. “We’re going to be looking to make sure there’s transparency as that process unfolds and to do what’s right for our industry and for the workforce that relies on the industry to take care of their families.”