After eight years leading the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, executive director David Gibbons is stepping down on Dec. 1 in the wake of a critical audit of its diversity efforts and disputes over a key development project.
MCCA board chair Emme Handy notified staff on Tuesday morning of Gibbons’s pending departure, which she characterized as a mutual decision. Gibbons has led the MCCA since early in the Baker administration and has more than one year remaining on his contract.
But his departure hardly comes as a shock, following a clash last week with Handy over the fate of 6-plus acres of land the MCCA is trying to develop near the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, as well as an outside audit in October that showed the authority falling short in diversifying its leadership team and suppliers.
His departure also follows a big change in June to the makeup of the board of the MCCA, which oversees the BCEC, the Hynes Convention Center, the MassMutual Center in Springfield, and the Boston Common garage. About six months after taking office this year, Governor Maura Healey swept out most of the board members appointed by her predecessor, Charlie Baker, and replaced them with her own nominees, including Handy. (The governor controls a majority of the board seats.)
Healey’s office offered a brief statement. “Governor Healey is confident that the board will oversee a smooth transition that ensures a strong future for the MCCA, which plays a critical role in Massachusetts’ economy and competitiveness,” said spokesperson Karissa Hand.
In her memo to the MCCA’s roughly 400-person staff, Handy said the board plans to soon name an interim executive director. For now, general manager Diane DiAntonio will be the MCCA’s top executive. Then the board will search for a more permanent replacement.
“The Board has an expansive and positive vision for the Authority and is committed to launching a transparent and inclusive search to identify the next permanent executive director who will share that vision and bring it to life,” Handy wrote.
Gibbons, a hotelier by profession, was hired in late 2015 after Baker had put the brakes on a proposed $1 billion expansion of the Boston convention center, the MCCA’s flagship facility.
In 2019, Gibbons tried to advance a slimmed-down version of the BCEC expansion but he and Baker initially tied it to turning over the Hynes site to developers and using the proceeds to fund the project. That concept did not go far in the Legislature. Plans were put on hold for much of the COVID-19 pandemic, until the Baker administration tried again last year to get legislative approval to redevelop the Hynes — again to no avail.
Gibbons has since committed to making the necessary renovations, likely exceeding $200 million, to keep the Hynes going well into the future.
Gibbons ran into friction again about a year ago when he sought a developer for the 6-plus acres of empty lots that the MCCA has long controlled on D and E streets in South Boston. Some critics said the process, launched in the waning weeks of the Baker administration, was too hasty, and the board decided in April to restart it. Last week, MCCA staff recommended a 1.6-million-square-foot proposal, mostly consisting of labs and offices, from Cronin Development for the site, over one from a rival team led by Boston Global Investors. (Principals at Cronin Development and BGI declined to comment about Gibbons’s departure on Tuesday.)
In an unusual rebuke, Handy removed the discussion about the land from the agenda of the board’s monthly meeting last Thursday.
Gibbons’s three-year contract is set to expire at the end of December 2024. It’s not yet public how much he will be paid for the remaining time on that contract. He earned $316,000 in 2022, including bonus payouts on top of his annual base salary of $265,000. Gibbons did not respond to a message seeking comment on Tuesday.
Under Gibbons’s leadership, the MCCA also recently faced scrutiny on issues of diversity. Law firm Prince Lobel Tye interviewed dozens of people and ultimately concluded in a report that the agency has not had a Black or Hispanic person in any leadership role since 2019, and the management had not made it a priority to “address these concerning demographic trends.” The audit raised similar concerns about the agency’s hiring of outside contractors. The report did note that in July, Gibbons hired the authority’s first chief diversity officer, an indication that some of its practices in this area may be starting to change or evolve.
The board also concluded the agency was much more focused on the bottom line under Gibbons than it was under predecessor Jim Rooney, now the chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. Nearly every year, the MCCA gets operating subsidies via a drawdown from the state’s Convention Center Fund, which relies on a variety of tourism taxes. Under Gibbons, the authority largely kept those drawdowns in the relatively low $1 million to $4 million range, and in fact didn’t require any operating subsidies in the 2022 fiscal year. (Notable exceptions were the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years, during the height of the pandemic.)
Rooney said he wasn’t surprised to learn of Gibbons’s departure. It’s natural, he said, for top leadership positions to change in the first year of a new governor’s administration.
The uncertainty in the hospitality industry around the future of the Hynes and the BCEC expansion, Rooney added, has not been healthy for Boston.
“It’s a moment in time for a refresh, to take a look at the role of the convention centers in our broader economic development strategy,” Rooney said. “There are a lot of cities around the country that run them as ‘shows in, shows out,’ and ‘put some heads on beds.’ If that’s all they want [here], it would be disappointing to me. But they need to decide what they want to do, and now’s a good time to do it.”