|By Peter J. Howe, The Boston Globe
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 23, 2005 - With four months left before a blue-ribbon Beacon Hill commission decides whether to shut down or sell the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, the panel has been thrown a curve ball.
The Hynes just posted record annual revenue and its smallest operating loss in at least 15 years. And it achieved those results even though it was the first full year of operations for the new, much bigger Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston, which some state officials feared would turn the Hynes into a white elephant.
With 122 events booked at the Hynes during the year ended June 30 attracting an estimated 403,000 attendees, the Back Bay hall recorded revenues of just over $10 million. Its operating loss of $949,200 was the smallest since at least 1990, according to the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. The Southie center, meanwhile, booked 118 events that drew nearly 187,000 attendees.
Governor Mitt Romney campaigned for election promising to shut down the Hynes. Think tanks including the Pioneer Institute have blasted the state convention-hall business, assailing the $17 million-plus annual taxpayer subsidy the convention center authority requires for operating losses and construction interest and debt.
But Mayor Thomas M. Menino's administration and Back Bay hotel and tourism businesses that benefit from Hynes operations say its recent performance provides a strong argument for keeping the Hynes open alongside the new convention center.
"The Hynes is an important part of what makes the Back Bay business complex work," said Mark Maloney, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. "We think we should continue to see the Hynes operated, more and more efficiently, with less and less subsidies. The numbers for fiscal 2005 are fairly impressive."
Maloney is Menino's lead representative on the 12-member commission that is scheduled to report by Dec. 30 on possible options for the Hynes, including continuing to operate it as is, selling it, or redeveloping some or all of the facility for other purposes.
Some Hynes boosters have proposed leaving the hall's upper floors as is but redeveloping the first floor for retail space. Menino is particularly interested in developing a section of the Hynes at Dalton and Boylston streets that is now dominated by a brick wall.
Representative Antonio F.D. Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat who heads the Legislative committee that oversees the convention authority and who serves with Maloney on the 12-member commission, said his mind remains open.
But Cabral said, "If we're to sell the Hynes, it might cost Massachusetts taxpayers more than what it costs to continue to operate it because of the loss of tax revenues -- hotel, meals, income tax, and overall tax revenues" attributable to Hynes events.
Romney's administration may have, at least rhetorically, lost some of its shutter-the-Hynes zeal of two years ago. "With the opening of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, the business of the Hynes is changing, so the Hynes will have to change," Romney spokesman Felix Browne said. "We look forward to receiving the commission's report on alternative or shared uses for the Hynes convention center."
With a 516,000-square-foot main hall and 84 meeting rooms, the new convention center has roughly three times the capacity of the Hynes. Two major Hynes events, New England Grows, a garden and nursery trade show, and the International Seafood Show, moved from the Hynes to the new center for the first time last year.
James E. Rooney, the convention center executive director, stressed that the authority has no public position on future use of the Hynes. Rooney credited the record financial performance over the past year to "a restructured and strategic marketing effort" that included more marketing of the Hynes, rather than merely responding to trade-association inquiries, and basic expense reduction.
Although the Hynes represents at least some competition for the Southie hall, the two appear to be attracting mostly different kinds of events and overall expanding the total Boston convention and meeting market, officials said.
The Hynes has an abundance of hotel rooms and shopping choices nearby that have made it an appealing venue for gatherings of professional groups. In contrast, the Summer Street convention hall is amid a sea of parking lots and wide-open development lots but has the advantage of offering massive amount of exhibition space for commercial shows.
With 96 events booked so far this year in the new center and 109 at the Hynes, the facilities are on a combined path to bring in 721,000 attendees accounting for 515,000 hotel-room nights, double the levels of two years ago, MCCA figures show.
The numbers reflect to a significant extent the continued recovery of the travel, tourism, and convention businesses that collapsed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
But Cabral, the legislative leader, said it also suggests Boston's second public convention hall is successfully "going after a different market. They're not stealing each other's events."
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