THE BEST PART of Governor Charlie Baker’s new plan to expand the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center isn’t the expansion itself, but the opportunity to free up 12 acres on the booming South Boston waterfront — and unload the white elephant that the Hynes Convention Center has been since the day the BCEC opened.
Baker rolled out his plan last week — a considerably stripped down version of an ill-advised $1 billion, 1.3 million-square-foot expansion that was the brainchild of then-Governor Deval Patrick. That earlier mega-convention center plan was put on hold by Baker at a time when the state faced a sizable budget deficit and the BCEC was itself running at substantial losses.
Better management that put an emphasis on both the consumer experience and the bottom line means the BCEC actually showed a $3.6 million operating profit for fiscal 2019, according to the administration.
The Hynes, though, is expected to lose at least $250,000. In fact, the 2018 financial statement filed by the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (MCCA) showed the Hynes in fiscal 2018 operating at a loss of some $1.3 million.
And the Back Bay facility, built in 1963 and rebuilt in 1988, would need an estimated $200 million in capital investment over the next 10 years “just to maintain its current state,” according to the administration. That would be the very definition of throwing good money after bad.
So Thursday the MCCA Board voted its approval to go ahead with the planning process for an expanded BCEC, approve the sale of the Hynes, and transfer those eminently developable acres to the city.
The proposed $500 million, 500,000-square-foot expansion would include 204,500 square feet of “sellable space”: a 100,000-square-foot exhibition hall, a 60,500-square-foot ballroom, and 44,000 square feet of meeting rooms. The space allocations are designed to capture the niche market developed by the Hynes but also allow the BCEC to vie for larger shows — the ones which, as hotel interests are fond of saying, actually put “heads on beds.”
No, the BCEC will never compete with such giants as Chicago or Orlando — nor should it go deeply into debt to try. And that’s the real beauty of the current expansion plan. It can be funded by using the proceeds from the sale of the Hynes and other revenues that go into the Convention Center Fund — taxes and fees from tourism-related businesses.
All of this will need legislative approval, although the original Patrick-filed legislation is still officially on the books.
And because this is Boston, after all, the best part of the plan — the sale of the Hynes — will probably be the most controversial. Despite its enviable Back Bay location, the facility remains empty, according to the authority, 66 percent of the time. The occupancy figure itself is grossly inflated by the occasional luncheon, college trustee meetings, and gate shows — none of which put those much-desired heads on beds.
At least part of the reason it’s empty more often than not is that it’s simply hideous. Its construction harks back to a time when convention centers were apparently built like old-style casinos, where patrons are never supposed to see the light of day. A prime parcel — some 5.6 acres — on Boylston Street can certainly be put to better use than the largely big, blank wall it now presents to passers-by.
As for that 12 acres in the Seaport District, the possibilities truly are endless — although if Mayor Marty Walsh is to keep his promises, housing should certainly top the list.
It’s not often that a proposal is a win-win-win, but this one is. Lawmakers should put it on their fall to-do list.