Heavy Hitters Want a Supersized Convention Center, But They Have to Get Past Widmer First

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

All but three of the 27 members of an advisory panel studying a possible $2 billion expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) endorsed the idea yesterday.

This is a very ambitious plan and it cannot pay for itself up front.

The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which runs the BCEC in South Boston and the Hynes Convention Center in the Back Bay section of Boston, therefore has no choice but to look for public dollars (tax and fee increases) to make it happen.

There's precedence for this, of course: the original construction of the BCEC was funded through new hotel taxes and fees on taxi cabs, rental cars and tour buses.

Before the BCEC expansion can go forward, the City of Boston, the Massachusetts legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick all must bless it.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino definitely supports it and the governor's staff is making noises indicating that Patrick will embrace it, too.

You could probably mark this down as a sure thing were it not for one man: Michael J. Widmer, President of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, http://www.masstaxpayers.org/

Although Widmer has never held elective office, he served with distinction in the administrations of Gov. Frank Sargent, a Republican, and Gov. Michael Dukakis, a Democrat, and has gained nearly oracular status in his two decades at the helm of the MTF, which bills itself as "the independent resource for the Commonwealth's decision makers."

Widmer got his reputation for integrity, independence and candor the old fashioned way: he earned it.

He knows, and is known by, everyone in state government. And everyone who knows him will tell you that, one, he's very smart, and, two, he never shades the truth for anyone.

So when Mike Widmer, a member of the advisory Convention Center Partnership that voted 24-3 yesterday to recommend the BCEC expansion, says, "I'm yet to be persuaded that the benefits of this project merit the large public expenditures that would be required," the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority has a problem.

Oh, by the way, the other two votes against the proposal were cast by Sonia Chang-Diaz, the state senator for the South End district adjoining South Boston, and Samuel Tyler, director of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a formally established fiscal watchdog within the apparatus of city government.

Higher hotel taxes and higher fees on other aspects of the tourist trade will be no easy sell in this legislature, which has for three years now resisted calls for higher taxes to address Great Recession-related deficits.

Interestingly, the Convention Center Authority is pushing expansion at a time when the number of conventioneers coming to Massachusetts is dropping. Since the recession started in 2008, the number of visitors to the BCEC and the Hynes declined 26%, from 870,000 per year to 645,000.

Wouldn't the Authority be better off waiting until the tide has turned on those numbers before asking the millions of tourists who visit here every year to pay for a bigger playpen in South Boston?

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