Power Lunch: Jim Rooney

The new Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce CEO says innovation is his cup of tea.

jim rooney

Photograph by Jared Leeds

Perched above fort point Channel in the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum’s tea room, Jim Rooney sips a cup of Abigail’s Blend. A seasoned politico—he’s the outgoing head of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, and an MBTA and Menino-­administration vet—Rooney suggested meeting here to show how old and new Boston already coexist. It’s a platform he’ll be talking a lot more about as he prepares to take over the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on July 1. But Rooney may need more than a cup of revolutionary fervor to convince his critics that he’s not just another older-white-guy establishment figure.

So, why meet at the Tea Party museum?

This was one of the United States’ leading seafood- and wool-processing centers, back in the 1800s. And now it’s the Innovation District, and the whole new economy. Right outside is Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and the building over there houses Wellington Management.

Critics said the Chamber of Commerce should have picked someone from outside of the Boston establishment, a fresh face. How do you represent fresh thinking?

[At the Convention Center Authority], we embraced innovation and technology. We were the first convention center in the world to offer 100 percent free wireless connectivity. We put interactive artwork on the Lawn on D; we have music. It’s all about being ­responsive to the way people want to gather and meet today. They don’t want to sit in a meeting room. I’m fresh, just not a fresh face.

You’ve championed expanding the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, which the governor has put on hold. Nationwide, a lot of convention-center space is being built, while the number and size of conventions in the country aren’t growing.

There have been 18 straight quarters of growth in the meetings and conventions ­industry. That’s $285 billion in spending this year—more than the film, gaming, and sports ­industries. It may not be growing real fast, and there may be more supply [than demand], but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t compete.

How will you implement your aspirations for diversity and inclusion, or help the chamber better connect to the innovation economy?

If something’s important to the organization strategically, someone has to wake up in the morning thinking about it every day. There will be people in senior positions at the chamber whose job it is to do those things.

How will the chamber respond to the needs of younger workers?

Each day for the next 15 years, 10,000 people in this country will turn 65 years old. And the backfill of that largely will be people who are between 22 and 34 years old today. I think the chamber’s role is to first create awareness of this phenomenon so that businesses can prepare, and then think about ways to make the workplace and the working environment in Boston more attractive to that group.

This goes back to places like the Lawn on D, issues like the coolness factor, these gathering places that millennials like to go to and socialize. Minds follow lifestyle. So it’s working with the mayor on things like the housing issue—where can these people afford to live?

You worked at the T for a long time, from track laborer to acting general manager. What was your reaction to its breakdown this winter?

I was heartbroken. I left the T in 1994. As soon as the winter ended, you started preparing for the next one. You took care of third-rail heaters and switch heaters. You worked on them all summer, so you could be ready for the winter. There was a snow plan in place. It doesn’t strike me that those things were being done. And those were fundamentals.