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City Megaplex Is Touted As Key to Boston's Revival

But some lawmakers say new center would hurt downtown business

BAY State Gov. William Weld (R) wants to reinforce Boston's status as a world-class city.

That's why he is pushing for the construction of a $700 million domed sports and convention center. His proposed ``megaplex'' - which includes 630,000 feet of exhibition space for meetings and trade shows - would also be the new home for the New England Patriots football team.

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Weld officials estimate that the Boston facility would pump $1.2 billion into the economy, beef up the convention-center business, and create thousands of jobs. The bill was filed in July to build the facility; its financing would come from using revenues from five floating-casino boats, not raising taxes.

Though state Democratic lawmakers are skeptical, business leaders say that the plan would propel Boston into a new economic era. ``The megaplex is the single most important action that the state and city government can take to keep Boston competitive in the visitor industry,'' says Patrick Moscaritolo, president of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Indeed, Weld officials are touting the megaplex as an engine of economic growth for the region. With its fixed-seating capacity of 70,000, they estimate that it could attract 10 Patriots games and 17 to 22 nonprofessional sporting events each year.

Meanwhile, Patriots officials have long pushed the idea of building a stadium since they believe that their privately owned one in Foxborough, Mass., needs to be expanded. Hartford, Conn., lawmakers, meanwhile, are trying to lure the Patriots to a proposed stadium in their city.

Besides sporting events, Mr. Weld expects that the megaplex would attract high-powered political conventions, entertainment events, and trade shows. Business leaders are thrilled. They have long complained about Boston's small Hynes Convention Center. They say Boston misses out while cities like Philadelphia - which recently opened a new center - rake in the revenues.

In fact, Hynes ranks 38th in size in the United States, while the megaplex would come in near the top 10, Weld officials say.

``Without [the megaplex], our convention industry is going to take a nose dive,'' Mr. Moscaritolo says. ``In the last 18 months, we've had 14 conventions scheduled to come to Boston in future years ... that basically have canceled because our facilities are too small.''

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Yet Weld's megaplex legislation won't sail smoothly through the state legislature. Though lawmakers agree that the city needs more convention space, they are skeptical about the financing plan. It calls for state bonds backed by annual payments of: $40 million from five floating casinos; $8.5 million, starting in 1998, from Boston's hotel/motel tax revenues; $1.6 million in state funds; and $6.8 million from the Patriots. The bill calls for 12 casino boats, five of which would cruise Boston Harbor.

While some lawmakers don't approve of putting casino-gambling boats in the harbor, others question whether a new football stadium is needed at all. ``The jury is still out on the megaplex,'' says state House Speaker Charles Flaherty (D), a leading critic of the plan. ``People are concerned about whether or not we are spending state money to enhance the investment ... of a private business.''

He and other lawmakers advocate a plan to privately finance improvements to Foxboro Stadium. With the state's ``shrinking budget pie,'' funds should be spent on issues such as education and local aid, Mr. Flaherty says.

State Rep. Marc Draisen (D) agrees. Besides his moral opposition to the casinos, he says the boats will hurt the downtown business area. ``You want [people] to spend their time downtown, spending their money in the shops and restaurants,'' he says. ``You don't want them off in the harbor gambling their money away.''

Draisen, like Flaherty, supports expanding Foxboro Stadium because it would be less costly. At $60 million, the renovation plan calls for increasing seating to 75,000, from 61,000. Improvements would also be made in parking and architectural design.

City officials, for their part, support the idea of the megaplex, though Acting Mayor Thomas Menino (D) opposes using city revenues from the hotel/motel tax to pay for the stadium.

Weld officials say they don't know when the General Court will act on the megaplex bill, but they hope to see it passed this fall. The governor says the facility, which would be built on a 42-acre site off the Southeast Expressway, would be completed in 1998.

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