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Cities across US rush to attract conventions: just look at Boston

Boston is working hard to become a major convention city. It is rebuilding and enlarging its John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, now scheduled to reopen in January 1988.

``Our goal is to make Boston at least No. 5,'' says the center's executive director, Francis X. Joyce. Boston would then trail only New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington.

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Why do so many communities want convention halls?

``A convention center brings money into a city,'' says Mel Hosansky, editor of Conventions and Meetings magazine, which is read by more than 80,000 meeting planners across the United States. ``Ten years ago only 20 to 30 cities hosted most of the nation's conventions, large or small. Today with nearly 300 cities actively involved in seeking meetings, many of them are struggling to break even.

``They all see convention centers as generators of business and jobs, as magnets that attract hotels, restaurants, commercial areas, and tourists,'' Mr. Hosansky says. ``They generate taxes. Some cities accept the centers as deficit operations, but reason that their benefits outweigh this liability.''

Even with its new capacity, Hynes has a drawback. With 218,000 square feet of exhibit space, it still will be only the nation's 35th largest center. New York City's new Javits Convention Center, which opened last April, can accommodate more than 90,000 people. Chicago's McCormick Place with its new annex is the largest.

Both New York and Chicago operate at a deficit, although they each bring more than $1.4 billion in convention spending to their cities.

The Javits Center, designed by I.M. Pei & Partners and called the ``Crystal Palace,'' cost $486.2 million to build, although planned for $375 million. It was completed two years behind schedule.

The 12-member board of McCormick Place was dismissed because the new annex cost $312 million, well above a projected $60 million.

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Cities like San Diego, San Francisco, and Philadelphia face possible cost overruns, too, as they carry out plans to build or increase capacity and improve facilities.

On the West Coast, San Francisco, Anaheim, and Los Angeles contemplate enlarging their facilities. San Diego, in the process of developing a new center, faces impatient hotel and tourist interests that want a larger facility built at a faster pace than the five years and 200,000 square feet planned.

Philadelphia, Denver, and Miami seek new facilities, but costs, location, and other problems are stalling action.

Boston is particularly attractive as a convention center, Hosansky says. ``With its economic growth, its colleges, and its cultural institutions, Boston is sophisticated,'' he says. ``It offers good catering. Its computer capability for high-tech programs appeals to meeting planners.''

But not all observers share executive director Joyce's enthusiasm for the new Hynes, which is named for a former Boston mayor. Convention centers invariably cost more than anticipated and usually operate in the red, critics say. A cover article in a recent issue of Boston magazine lists three criticisms of the Hynes: renovation is too costly; the center will operate at a $24 million annual deficit, and it is still too small to attract the largest conventions.

Nevertheless, Joyce says the 1988 reopening of the Hynes will spell progress for Boston. A hotel building boom has tripled nearby hotel rooms from 2,000 to 6,000, he says. And another 7,000 rooms are downtown. Since the Hynes closed, the occupancy rate in downtown hotels has actually increased from 67 to 68 percent, according to Boston magazine.

In addition, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which controls Hynes, has organized a unit to market Massachusetts as a host state for meetings of all sizes. It promotes the state through offices in Washington, New York, and Chicago.

Local critics and ``watchdogs'' over tax funds do not view Hynes through the eyes of Joyce or Hosansky, however. They see taxpayers holding the bag for a perennial loser, although Joyce forecasts a $40 million annual bonanza for the state from hotel and room taxes.

Joyce sings his own sour note, too. He faces a projected first-year deficit of $3.3 million, well above the $800,000 authorized by the state for a year's operations.

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