The proposed $400 million expansion of the Boston’s gigantic Seaport convention hall could turn out to be one very sweet deal for a Texas tycoon and GOP mega-donor.
The proposal to build onto the half-empty Boston Convention & Exhibition Center has been a puzzler, at least when it comes to its economic rationale as a supposed pump-primer for economy of Greater Boston.
The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority is rolling out the seemingly half-baked idea at a time when the jury is still out on whether the meetings business, already on the decline before COVID, will ever rebound.
The boosterish claim by the project’s backers that an expanded convention center will generate a 20 percent or so jump in convention-related hotel room nights across Boston should be treated with a high degree of skepticism.
But while it’s hard to see how the expansion will help hard-hit hotels in the Back Bay, downtown Boston, and other parts of the city, it’s a much different story for the Seaport hotels built around the convention center.
GOP Megadonor Stands to Benefit
Owners and operators of these convention center hotels could clean up for the expansion, which would add a new ballroom and other fancy new gathering spots literally a hop and a skip away.
And that’s particularly the case for Texas billionaire and Republican megadonor Robert Rowling, whose Omni chain operates a luxury hotel just across the street from the convention center.
The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority is pushing for a green light to expand the aircraft carrier-sized convention hall in the Seaport. And wouldn’t you know the plan just happens to include a new entrance into the BCEC for conventioneers staying just across Summer Street from the $550 million Omni Boston Seaport Hotel?
I am sure that is just fine and dandy with Rowling, who, when he is not cutting advantageous – and often publicly subsidized – hotel deals with convention centers around the country, is busy showering cash on GOP causes and candidates. A prodigious Republican donor for years now, Rowling and his wife, Terry, most recently pumped $446,800 into a political action committee backing Republican House candidates in the upcoming midterm elections.
Rowling, though, is smart enough not to be his own pitchman in Boston. That role is played by a team of local developers, including Richard Taylor and hotelier Robin Brown, who helped build the convention center hotel.
But make no mistake, Rowling and Omni definitely have skin in the game, and a lot of it. Along with being the hotel’s operator, Omni also pumped $100 million into the development of the convention center hotel, which opened last year.
Primed to Grab Convention Business
Omni and its local co-developers are already the beneficiaries of some key public infrastructure dollars. And, with the expansion, the benefits are set to swell.
Built two decades ago, a tunnel underneath Summer Street already helps connect the Omni on one side with the convention center on the other.
However, the tunnel only goes so far, exiting onto the street outside the BCEC. Omni patrons currently have a long walk – roughly three minutes – along the exterior of the convention hall to the nearest entrance, which, during inclement weather, is not ideal.
If the Omni hotel empire is going to reap big benefits from Boston’s convention center expansion, maybe they can help foot the bill.
Under the proposed expansion, a new entrance to the main exhibit hall will replace the current slog around the exterior of the convention center according to a spokesperson for the MCCA. In addition, another project is underway that will provide Omni hotel patrons and others a second entryway into the BCEC as well, with a new set of stairs and an escalator within 100 feet of the tunnel exit.
With not just one, but two entrances into the BCEC and its swanky new addition, Rowling and his Omni Hotels & Resorts chain would be primed to grab convention business away from competing hotels in the Back Bay and downtown Boston, said Heywood Sanders, a public administration professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a long-time expert on the nation’s convention industry.
“Omni and Rowling are in a position to benefit directly and greatly from the public investment,” Sanders said.
the expansion plan in Boston fits a wider pattern that has seen Rowling and Omni reap “substantial public subsidies” for showpiece convention center hotels in Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, and Nashville, among other cities, Sanders said, although it’s worth noting Rowling’s Seaport hotel was built without public subsidies.
If Rowling and his Omni hotel empire is going to reap big benefits from Boston’s budding convention center expansion, then maybe he can help foot the bill for it.
Now, there’s an idea.
Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.