Don’t Forget to Blame Mayor Menino for the Convention Center

A history lesson most people tend to forget.

I wish I still had the great map, probably produced around 1998 or 1999, that showed what the Seaport District was supposed to look like when the new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) opened in 2004. It was great, showing all the hotels that would be open within various zones of proximity—plenty of rooms for all those convention-goers to rest their heads just a short walk from the building.

Come the Convention Center opening, not a single one of those hotels had opened. Menino even tried to secure special federal HUD loans to jump-start them in 2003. The Westin, which won the bid and then failed for years to secure actual financing, opened in 2006 with 800 rooms instead of the promised 1,120. The Renaissance Marriott and Intercontinental eventually happened, but as Derrick Jackson points out in today’s Globe, many conventioneers are still forced to bus or cab it to their rooms, 10 years after the area was supposed to be teeming with hotels.

That’s the fiasco that surrounds everything about the BCEC, and lurks behind the controversy around expansion plans today. It’s why there’s the whole issue of whether to include funding for hotel expansion, and how to handle that bidding so it doesn’t get screwed up like last time. Sadly, most people have forgotten the history, so they fail to place the blame where it belongs: on former Mayor Thomas Menino.

Here’s the short version: In the mid-1990s, Boston wanted a bigger convention center than the Hynes. Developer Joe Corcoran wanted to build one as part of a “Megaplex” at CrossTown, which was a big unused site south of Boston Medical Center at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass. South Boston pols—James Kelly, Steve Lynch, and Jack Hart, to name names—with visions of $65 million of linkage money in their eyes, wanted a convention center on their waterfront. There were other proposals as well.

Pretty much every reasonably objective study, including one commissioned by the state, gave the thumbs-up to Corcoran, and a thumbs-down to the South Boston plan. But first-full-term Mayor Menino, needing to fend off potential Irish-American threats, had figured out the political value of winning this battle for Southie. (This was before he realized the value of the black vote; this battle got him in big trouble with Boston’s black leaders.) And guess what happens when Menino wants something to go his way in the city?

Here’s an example, as told by the great Joan Vennochi in a September 1995 Globe column:

[Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce] chairman Flash Wiley is circulating a memo that outlines the history of the chamber’s various positions regarding a new convention center…

…As Wiley recounts it, the chamber initially supported the megaplex and set up a separate organization, the Massachusetts Alliance for Jobs Growth, to advance the cause. But last October, he notes, “a very important and previously silent player in the megaplex debate, Mayor Tom Menino, made his wishes known. . .” Since those mayoral wishes embraced a new convention center only in South Boston, and not a megaplex, before you know it, that’s what the chamber wished for, too. “It was my impression that our reversal in positions was greatly impacted by our wish to be personally supportive of Mayor Menino,” explains Wiley.

Funny how that happens.

In the end, the state went against all the best advice and gave the OK to the South Boston BCEC, and Menino got one of his top aides, Jim Rooney of South Boston, installed as head of the project at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which he still runs.

And then it turned out that in fact the hotels didn’t have the financing, and developing the area was going to be more expensive than suggested, and developers didn’t want to go first in a purely hypothetical neighborhood, and Frank McCourt was actually making more money using his land as a tax-dodge vehicle than he would developing it (as we learned later during his divorce), and basically the whole plan was as unsteady as everybody had warned. Later, they all blamed tourism-killing 9/11, but the shovels should have already been in the ground by then.

And here we are today, still playing catch-up. How we should move forward is a tough question, but let’s bear in mind how we got here.