At first it sounded like a bad joke — House Speaker Ron Mariano going before the cameras and seemingly freestyling his way through a solution to the state’s migrant crisis by suggesting that those newly arrived migrants with no place else to go could be housed at the Hynes Convention Center in the heart of Back Bay.
Well, it would at least make some use of the underutilized white elephant on Boylston Street that local legislators for years have refused to allow to be closed or sold or repurposed. And it has a little of that delicious “take that, you chichi Back Bay folks” who got a case of the vapors every time the Hynes and affordable housing were mentioned in the same breath. Yes, it’s enough to make Florida Governor Ron DeSantis smile at the notion.
Asked if the Hynes was in play as a possible “emergency overflow” shelter site now that the state’s already designated shelters have reached capacity, Mariano recently said, “It’s up to [the administration] as to how many we need. Do we need one? If we have [the] Hynes, will that do it? Or do we need multiple locations all across the state? We talked about a lot of different ways to attack the problem. Some are multiple locations. Some are single big locations.”
The notion of an emergency overflow shelter (or two) was thrown into the mix when the House insisted $50 million of $250 million in emergency funding to deal with the migrant crisis be used for such a site intended to accommodate families wait-listed after shelter capacity reached the limit of 7,500 families imposed by the Healey administration. Under the House bill, the overflow site would have to open within 30 days of the bill being signed into law or Healey’s effort to limit capacity to 7,500 would be revoked. The Senate didn’t go along with the overflow shelter idea in its version of the bill released Monday. Instead it would require the administration to simply report every two weeks on its spending to meet the crisis.
Now the Hynes wouldn’t exactly conjure up images of migrant children in cages in Texas. So, yes, there are worse places. But its huge windowless rooms — OK for trade shows — aren’t exactly optimal for housing children.
Have the powers that be in the House ever thought about where those kids might find a nice outdoor place to play? Boylston Street may be fun for meeting attendees in search of shops and an expensive steak dinner, but for kids in need of fresh air, sunshine, and a place to toss around a soccer ball, well, not so much.
Sure, it was fine as an emergency vaccination site during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s not a shelter.
“Even though we have the volume of space, convention centers just don’t work” as shelter sites, David Gibbons, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, said in an interview Tuesday. “This building has maybe one shower and we don’t have anywhere near the number of bathrooms that would be needed.”
It also doesn’t have backup electrical power — a total redo of its electrical system will be a multi-year project, which was recently approved by the convention center board.
The image of a facility confronted with a situation it is ill-prepared to deal with conjures up images, even for Gibbons, of the “dystopian nightmare” that was the New Orleans convention center in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. No security, unless Mariano envisions the governor calling in more National Guard troops if needed.
And then there are the Hynes’s contractual obligations — sure, sparse over the winter months — but what about the spring? “There would be a lot of liabilities there,” Gibbons said.
And that doesn’t include the union waiters and staff left without work, the hotel rooms booked on the basis of a convention or a meeting now canceled. In January, Gibbons told a meeting of civic leaders and those in the hospitality industry, “The building is in such need of repair, we are running the equivalent of an ICU. We’re doing a life support system on the HVAC.”
Those comments came at a time when there was still a chance of selling off the Hynes (and using some of the proceeds to expand and improve the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in the Seaport district). That possibility ended in June when Governor Maura Healey appointed two Save-the-Hynes stalwarts to the Convention Center Authority board — Meg Mainzer-Cohen, head of the Back Bay Association, and Carlos Aramayo, president of the union representing hotel and hospitality workers, Unite Here Local 26.
In September the authority announced, “The Hynes will undergo capital improvements over the coming years to bolster its future as an industry-leading facility.” Those improvements are expected to take until 2029 and will include “replacement of air handlers and antiquated control systems, ensuring the building continues to operate efficiently in the future.”
But, hey, migrant families won’t be fussy, right?
The House plan complicates a situation now turned into a crisis. It’s a hasty and ill-conceived attempt to bully the governor into a quick fix solution. That’s wrong, and the Senate shouldn’t allow it to stand.
Rachelle G. Cohen is a Globe opinion writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.