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Chesto Means Business

Back Bay businesses look to a future after the Hynes

Anime Boston was a major gathering at the Hynes Convention Center in 2015. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File 2015

Way back when he was running for governor, Mitt Romney floated the sale of the Hynes Convention Center, and the Back Bay Association was one of the first groups to come out against the idea.

Flash forward 17 years. The Hynes faces the auction block again. The Back Bay business group is back, too, but it’s taking a decidedly different tack. Rather than oppose a sale outright, the association will seek a guarantee that whatever development goes in its place will include a significant amount of meeting space. The goal: to replace the economic boost that the Hynes has provided the Back Bay for years.


The association’s president, Meg Mainzer-Cohen, is gathering the forces of Hynes supporters, starting with a meeting on Thursday. On the invite list are representatives of trade groups and neighboring businesses.

She isn’t wasting any time. Governor Charlie Baker’s administration publicly proposed selling the Hynes just last week; the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority’s board, which Baker essentially controls, dutifully approved it.

The money from the Hynes would help pay for a long-awaited expansion of the much larger Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. David Gibbons, the authority’s executive director, essentially put it this way: Let’s make one awesome events facility, rather than run two buildings with flaws.

That’s great for the South Boston Waterfront, where the BCEC has been an important anchor since opening in 2004. Not so great for the Back Bay.

The Back Bay Association, an assemblage that includes some of the city’s biggest companies, has some leverage. The Hynes sale needs legislative approval. House Speaker Bob DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka on Monday signaled an openness to the idea, though neither one appears sold on it yet.

Here’s what Mainzer-Cohen wants: The state’s bidding parameters for the Hynes should require that any proposal include at least 150,000 square feet of privately run meeting space. That’s roughly half of the total event space in the Hynes today. But with the Back Bay center often reporting occupancy rates below 50 percent, it makes sense to aim for a smaller replacement.


Mainzer-Cohen also wants an independent assessment of the economic impact from the sale, before the Legislature moves ahead, and a pledge that bidders with Back Bay connections will be given preference. She doesn’t mention any by name. But Boston Properties could be a logical contender, given its ownership of the adjacent Prudential Center complex, where it also has its corporate headquarters.

And her wish list includes funds for a marketing program to help overcome any losses at Back Bay businesses if the building is sold.

Walk along Boylston or Newbury streets during a big event at the Hynes, and you’ll see evidence of the impact: swarms of conventioneers, often with ID badges hanging around their necks, crowding into restaurants and shops. It’s this ready-made audience that Mainzer-Cohen fears will evaporate.

So why not oppose the sale outright, as in 2002?

This time, the concept is much further along. Signed, sealed and delivered, as Mainzer-Cohen puts it. In contrast, Romney proposed a sale on the campaign trail — he wasn’t even in office yet. The idea prompted months of public hand-wringing before it was dropped during the Romney administration’s tenure.

Even with the recent Red Line breakdown and Registry of Motor Vehicles controversy, Baker still has tremendous political capital. Yes, some Back Bay hoteliers are grumbling behind the scenes; one even called the sale a punch in the gut at a private meeting last week. Finding one willing to publicly take on a popular governor over this issue is another matter entirely.


Unite Here Local 26 president Brian Lang seems to agree with Mainzer-Cohen’s approach. Rather than stand in the way of the Hynes legislation, Lang says his hotel workers union will probably try to ensure protections for the hospitality industry are included.

There’s some hope that redeveloping the Hynes site could be a net positive for the neighborhood. The Baker administration cites lackluster attendance numbers. But Mainzer-Cohen says the figures reflect a self-fulfilling prophesy, because the convention center authority prioritized convention and hotel bookings for the BCEC in recent years, slowly starving its smaller sibling.

Competition from the BCEC doomed the Bayside Expo in Dorchester, and Fidelity Investments will soon shutter the exhibit hall at the World Trade Center in South Boston. Can a Back Bay convention center avoid that fate? Maybe not the Hynes. But Mainzer-Cohen is beginning the groundwork to ensure another rival emerges from its ashes.

Jon Chesto can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.