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Shirley Leung

Baker shows Rooney who’s in charge of convention center

Jim Rooney.
Jim Rooney.Essdras M. Suarez/ Globe Staff/Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff/file

It was supposed to be the crowning achievement of Jim Rooney’s reign over the convention center authority, a $1 billion parting gift for his beloved Southie, not far from where he grew up.

Then a Harvard classmate named Charlie Baker (class of 1979) happened to get elected governor. The administration warned it might put on hold the expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center – and on Wednesday made it official.

And to leave no doubt who’s boss, Baker in one fell swoop also replaced half the board of the authority that runs the convention center.

Rooney had at least half-dozen conversations with Baker aides about the expansion, but could not figure out which way the governor was leaning. Then D-Day came, with Steve Kadish, Baker’s chief of staff, delivering the bad news to Rooney.

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Did Rooney see it coming? No, he insists. In his mind, he figured there was an 80 percent chance Baker would sign the bonds to build one million square feet of space.

Beacon Hill watchers pegged the odds at 50 percent, remarkably low given that the Legislature had already authorized financing for the project. All that was needed was Baker’s signature.

Throughout the waiting game, Rooney bristled with optimism – and bristled is the right word -- because he liked to quash suggestions the new administration was getting cold feet.

Hours after learning the fate of the center, Rooney, for the first time, sounded deflated.

“You don’t work on something for five years and get to this point and not feel disappointed about it,” Rooney said.

Did he regret not getting this done before the changeover on Beacon Hill?

“In some ways, yeah. I do regret the fact that there was even a choice,” Rooney said. “Hindsight is 20/20. Maybe I should have rushed it.”

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Rooney didn’t rush the bond sale because he didn’t need the money right away. He had planned for a late January bond offering and everything was in place but for one big exception: Buy-in from the new fiscal conservative in charge.

Rooney and Baker didn’t know each other while at Harvard, but they had mutual friends and Rooney knew the governor’s roommates. Their paths would cross again when Rooney was working on the Central Artery, and Baker was under the wing of Governor Bill Weld.

As costs for the Big Dig ballooned, Rooney and Baker teamed up to craft a financing plan. Yes that one; depending on whom you ask, that plan either saved the Commonwealth or made us forever in debt to the Big Dig. Rooney recalled he and Baker even traveled to New York together to sell the plan to Wall Street.

“I respect him, and I think he respects that I know numbers,” said Rooney.

But a key reason Baker is putting the brakes on the expansion is Rooney’s math. His administration claims it doesn’t add up. The current center operates at a loss and never met its original projection of hotel business. The message: We’re in a hole now, and it will only get bigger with a bigger space.

The convention center chief says the critics are missing the point. It’s not just about the number of visitors who check into hotel rooms.

“It’s about the excitement and place-making that is taking place on the waterfront,” said Rooney. “It’s about the jobs. It’s about the diversity and inclusion … It’s about competing in key industries.”

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The impending leadership vacuum at the convention center authority was another factor in delaying the expansion. Baker raised this issue as Rooney chased an opening at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. Last month Rooney got the nod to be its next president; he starts in July.

What gnaws at Rooney is to think that 5,000 construction jobs and 2,500 hospitality industry jobs won’t get created because of his career decision.

“It would really and truly bother me, and it is bothering me,” said Rooney, “to think a plumber, electrician, housekeeper or event manager — all of that would be lost — because I took a new job.”

Rooney told the governor he could find a good replacement, but Baker apparently was concerned about the impact of a management transition on the project. I am told the governor values strong leadership; running a convention business is no easy task, much less adding the complication of a $1 billion construction project.

Charlie Baker shares billing with Jim Rooney on the plaque inside the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
Charlie Baker shares billing with Jim Rooney on the plaque inside the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Baker knows something about the convention center. He served on the board when he was Weld’s administration and finance secretary. In fact, Baker’s name is on the plaque at the Southie convention center commemorating its opening in 2004.

Who’s right here?

Convention center economics are like casinos and the Olympics. You can pull out a study that proves that the convention center, casinos, or the Olympics are a boon to the local economy. You can also find some economist to tell you otherwise, that these projects are white elephants and drain money from other businesses.

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In the end, it’s a bet -- one Baker is not yet ready to take.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.