Breaking with Convention

Economy got you down? Job and bank savings disappearing? Fear not: Relief is coming right here to Charles River City, and it begins with “D” and it ends with “C” and it rhymes with hallelujah!

The 2004 Democratic National Convention at the FleetCenter is precisely one year away this month, but according to the organizing committee, economic manna is already falling. The city's hard-won victory in landing the four-day event means “the creation of thousands of jobs in the 18 months leading up to the convention, in addition to the powerful economic impact” of 35,000 attendees, according to Boston 2004, Incorporated. “Almost 2,000 full-time-equivalent jobs [and] roughly twice this number of part-time and temporary [jobs] will be created.” The committee isn't alone in its enthusiasm. Gushed the Boston Herald: “Organizers say the 2004 Democratic National Convention will kick an estimated $150 million into the region's economy — a prospect that overjoyed local business owners as well as corporate, political, and visitor-industry leaders.”

How great is this party going to be? One thing is for sure: The convention will be great for the political careers of Mayor Tom Menino and other local Democrats. But for the rest of us? If reporters put down their pompoms long enough to pick up their calculators, they might find the claims of an economic bonanza suspect. In fact, with the convention still a year away, some of the folks who supposedly stand to gain from it are already grumbling — and with good reason. Judging from past national political conventions in other cities, we may ultimately look back on the summer of 2004 and wonder what the hell we were thinking.

Since opening in september 1995, the FleetCenter has averaged nine concerts and other events between June and August. Next summer, it will host zero. That's because it will spend the summer being torn apart and reassembled for the Democratic National Convention. An average FleetCenter summer event draws 15,000 people. Losing nine such events, notwithstanding the convention itself, means that about 135,000 people will not be coming to the FleetCenter and will not be spending at area businesses. According to the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, people who come to Boston for a day spend an average of about $40, so losing nine events means $5.4 million in the negative column.

Austin O'Connor is not overjoyed. He's the CEO of the Briar Group, whose holdings include the Harp and the Commonwealth Pub, just minutes from the FleetCenter. Political conventioneers aren't the Harp's kind of crowd, says O'Connor. “We strictly depend on FleetCenter events,” he says. “Most people at the convention aren't likely to go out and walk to the Harp. They get free meals and drinks anyway.”

True enough. Conventiongoers traditionally eat and drink their way through a dizzying array of cocktail receptions and other freebies provided by interest groups and others. O'Connor says his operation might reap convention business at other venues, such as Ned Devine's in Quincy Market, in the week beginning next July 26. As for the FleetCenter neighborhood — well, he says, “Why don't you print that the Harp is available to be leased out for that entire week?”

Boston 2004 executive director Julie Burns bristles at the suggestion that the loss of economic activity in and around the arena should be deducted from the win column. “The FleetCenter is getting international attention,” she says. “I don't agree at all that they are going to lose anything.”

Tell that to the balance-beam people.

In 1996 and 2000, the U.S. Olympic Team's gymnastics trials brought national TV exposure and an average attendance of 60,000 to the FleetCenter. The 2000 event pumped $14 million into the local economy, according to the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. But in March, USA Gymnastics scrubbed its plans to return next June, citing conflicts with the Democratic National Convention. Boston also lost a gymnasts convention at the Hynes Convention Center, which was likely to draw about 2,000 people.

“That cancellation represents a pure loss to us,” FleetCenter CEO Richard Krezwick says of losing the Olympic trials, adding that other events normally held in the summer might be rescheduled. Still, he says, “It was something we as a corporation were willing to absorb in the name of doing what was right for the city.”

But the city's “very conservative” economic model for the political convention covers such factors, officials say, adding that any losses will be more than made up for by convention spending on everything from arena rent ($3.5 million) to teleprompters ($150,000) and an $800,000 reception for 15,000 media types. The convention clearly does mean some gain for Boston. But it's been overhyped.

According to the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the 35,000 people who will be attending the convention (some of whom already live here, but never mind) will spend about $260 per day, most of it on lodging. That makes hotels, along with businesses that cater private receptions, the biggest economic winners, except for police, who will be in overtime heaven.

The Democratic Party plans to contract with about 70 hotels, which have agreed to charge nightly rates ranging from $190 to $239. Given Boston's depressed room rates, those numbers look pretty good right now.

But, privately, some hotel operators are not so sure. If tourism recovers even moderately, they say, they'd be better off in the open market, especially if a lot of convention bookings fail to materialize — as happened at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles — and a lot of summer tourists do. July is a good month anyway: Those rooms would not otherwise be empty. And unlike the freebie-laden convention crowd, tourists actually spend money in restaurants and shops and take side trips to Cape Cod and the Berkshires.

At the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, the number of hotel rooms booked was 20,000 fewer than projected. The 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago generated great publicity, according to the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau's research director. But he told the Los Angeles Times, “It certainly wasn't one of our top 10 or even top 15 events” that year.

It's also easy to forget that Boston area hotels and businesses have already been squeezed to pony up $20 million toward the convention's $49.5 million cost. Income generated by the convention will to some degree reflect money these businesses have already donated. “A lot of the economic spinoff comes from fundraising within our own community,” says one corporate donor. “We've been asked to raise all this money in order to pay for a grand party for the Democrats.”

In Los Angeles, taxpayers who were initially told the 2000 Democratic National Convention would cost the city nothing ended up with a $36 million tab after private donations fell short and costs rose.

One prediction you can take to the bank is that the convention will bring with it massive inconvenience for the rest of us. About 45,000 daily transit riders, including rail commuters who will have to detrain well short of North Station, and Orange and Green Line users, face a miserable week.

A security zone beginning at New Chardon and Merrimac streets will seal off the area. “We want to mitigate the inconvenience as much as possible,” says Boston Police Superintendent Robert Dunford. “We know businesses have to get supplied, but how do we do that and retain a security perimeter? The whole thing's a challenge, but everyone's been great about compromising.”

Will I-93, which carries thousands of vehicles within shouting (or worse) distance of where a presidential nominee will be christened, be shut down? “That may not be an issue come 2004,” Dunford says — assuming that the Big Dig is, as promised, finished by then. But who knows what Homeland Security SWAT dogs will demand for this first post-September 11 national political convention?

All this may explain why boosters are shifting their spin from economic salvation to Boston reinvention. With the convention, they say, Boston has a high-profile opportunity to “rebrand” itself. “The convention is very important not just as actual dollars in people's pockets, but as a way to highlight what really makes up Boston,” Burns says.

She says the publicity generated by the Democrats will help draw even larger events to the largely unbooked convention center opening next year, though it's hard to envision events much bigger than Macworld and the Tall Ships, which are coming next summer anyway.

All cities cite image-boosting as a big-event rationale, though Seattle no doubt rethought that strategy after a World Trade Organization meeting there sparked riots in 1999. Like Boston, Los Angeles saw the Democratic National Convention as an opportunity to “rebrand” itself, says Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. “It didn't work,” he now says. “They said, We'll show [the media] that there's more to Los Angeles than meets the eye and that they would discover what a wonderful, multiethnic place it is and that people would take Los Angeles more seriously. It did not accomplish that. If anything, they focused on the demonstrations and a lot of B-roll of other parts of the city.”

What about cities dreaming of hosting future conventions? “I'd advise them not to bid,” says Kyser. “It isn't worth the effort.”