Should we expand the convention center? - Boston News, Weather, Sports | FOX 25 | MyFoxBoston

Should we expand the convention center?

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The group that runs what is already the biggest building in New England is looking for a massive $2 billion expansion, most of which would come from taxpayers.

But a FOX Undercover investigation shows that plenty of other cities have already expanded their convention centers often with lackluster results, raising questions about whether taxpayers would be able to recoup their investment.

"What we've seen over the last decade is an enormous boost in convention center space. What we haven't seen is an enormous boost in demand," said Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio who studies the convention industry and the public financing behind it.

But Boston will be different, says James E. Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, the quasi-public agency which runs the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston.

"We've got demonstrated results. We've shown that Boston can compete in a very, very competitive industry," Rooney said. "We're over-performing and we're turning away business."

Rooney will soon be looking to the Legislature for approval of the financing of his plan, which he estimates will cost $2 billion. That includes building two hotels near the convention hall -- a headquarters hotel of 1,000 to 1,200 rooms and a mid-priced hotel – and expanding the convention hall, which is already the biggest building in New England.

Rooney hopes that at least some private investment will help pay for the hotels, and the convention center authority is going to solicit proposals soon to determine how much private money they might attract.

Rooney's pitch: the expansion will pay for itself, and then some. Now, he says, the convention is losing business because the hall isn't big enough and there aren’t enough nearby hotels.

"Will the investment really give you the return you're hoping for?" asked FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet.

"We think so," Rooney replied. "We've turned away 132 events because of lack of space and lack of hotel rooms in the South Boston waterfront."

But it's an argument that one expert has heard before.

"This notion that the convention center is so full that it's losing business, that it can't accommodate the kind of business that folks would like to bring to Boston has a remarkably familiar ring to it," said Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas who studies the convention business and public financing for it.

It's not just Sanders who says there's more supply of convention space than demand for it.

As early as 2007 a group of industry leaders wrote in a report that "…that supply of available exhibit and meeting space across the nation currently exceeds demand, resulting in a 'buyers market'."

That may explain what happened in Washington D.C., where an $850 million center opened in 2003, replacing an older, smaller convention center. The number of hotel rooms booked because of the center – a key indicator of convention center success – has dropped steadily, though. In 2008 there were 376,296 hotel room nights, followed by 280,478 in 2009 and 274,951 in 2010.

Sanders says it's the same story across the country.

"Las Vegas is back to doing the level of business they had before they expanded. The same things happened in Orlando at the Orange County Convention Center and in Atlanta at The Georgia World Congress Center and in New Orleans at the Morial Convention Center… (also) in Baltimore and Philadelphia. So what we are seeing now is a convention center market characterized by way too much space and way too little business," Sanders said.

But Rooney says Boston will be different.

"I'm bullish on Boston. I believe in our product, I believe in our city. I see the results that we've been able to achieve…so yea, I think that there's going to be some failures across the country. But I think Boston is going to be among the winners.

Sanders says taxpayers should be asking some tough questions: "About whether Boston is the one unique place that is going to succeed. Or about whether if Boston expands, it doesn't find itself in the same place that Washington and Philadelphia and dozens of other cities have found themselves in. You build it, and nobody much comes."

Michael Widmer, President of The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, joined FOX 25 Morning News to give us his take.

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