Jewish World Review Nov. 25, 2002 / 20 Kislev, 5763
A 'Republican' lesson from a Democratic convention
When the announcement came that Boston would be hosting the 2004
Democratic convention, the city's chattering class nearly lost its mind
with delight. "PARTY TIME," blared the Herald's front page, which was
festooned with streamers and confetti.
The Globe devoted six inside
pages to the blessed event, while Mayor Tom Menino's Page 1 grin was so
incandescent it made people in Worcester squint. The euphoria couldn't
have been any greater if Babe Ruth himself had come swaggering into
Fenway Park. To hear the city's eminentoes, you'd think the 2004
convention will be the biggest thing to hit Boston since the Battle of
"This," exulted Jack Connors, CEO of one of the city's largest
advertising agencies, "is the relaunch of Boston." Added Brian Wallace,
the newly elected state rep: "Let's face it, the city's crossing a
Hilarious, the things people say when they're high.
Look, I'm glad Boston got the convention. It's a feather in any
city's cap to be the site of a presidential nomination. Atlanta,
Houston, and San Diego have had the privilege; no reason Boston
shouldn't have a turn. Besides, what could be more fitting? Democrats
flocking to Boston are at least as natural as swallows flocking to
Capistrano. Or better yet, buzzards flocking to Hinckley, Ohio.
But a little perspective, please. The Democratic convention is not
going to "relaunch" Boston, which doesn't need relaunching in any case.
Maybe Menino really believes, as he said recently, that when Americans
think of Boston they picture Ted Landsmark getting speared with an
American flag. In my experience they are more likely to picture Ted
Danson pouring a beer in "Cheers." As my colleague Brian McGrory
observed the other day, Boston attracted 12 million tourists last year
and is ranked seventh on the list of most popular US cities. This town
has its problems, but a forbidding reputation isn't one of them.
An inability to accommodate big crowds isn't one of them, either.
The Globe reports that with 35,000 people, the Democratic convention
will be "the largest conference in the city's history." Tell that to
the organizers of Macworld, the computer trade show that is expected to
attract an estimated 50,000 people when it returns to Boston in 2004.
To be sure, Macworld's mostly regional 50,000 attendees won't have
the same impact as the Democrats' 35,000, who will be arriving from
every part of the country and filling many more hotel rooms. On the
other hand, Boston didn't have to pony up tens of millions of dollars in
subsidies to get Macworld to come here. The Democrats auctioned
themselves off to the highest bidder and Boston offered more than any
other city -- a $49.5 million package of cash and in-kind contributions
-- so it got the convention. Will it be worth it?
Yes, yes, yes, insist Menino et al., trumpeting the claim that the
return on this "investment" will be an economic boost of $150 million.
But those kind of predictions rarely pan out. "Getting the convention
is a real coup," says Charles Chieppo of the Pioneer Institute, the
respected Boston think tank, "but I've been studying this stuff for
years and I have yet to see a convention that generates as much economic
activity as is projected." Boston will do well from the Democrats'
bash, but it won't do $150 million.
Meanwhile, the price Boston will pay to host the convention will be
considerably more than $49.5 million. That sum, for example, doesn't
include insurance, transportation, or police overtime. It includes only
$10 million for security, a figure that, post 9/11, seems far too low.
If the last Democratic convention is any guide, Boston is in for a far
more expensive date than it's counting on: Los Angeles budgeted $8.3
million to host Al Gore's nomination two years ago. The final price tag
came to nearly $36 million.
So will it be worth it? Probably -- but only because a huge chunk
of Boston's costs are going to be paid by private corporations, which
have pledged $20 million in cash and are expected to come up with
another $12 million in goods and services. With individual companies --
not taxpayers -- footing so much of the bill, the convention is far
likelier to have a positive economic impact than would otherwise be the
But that raises a question: if the private sector is prepared to dig
so deeply into its own pockets just to finance a four-day convention,
shouldn't it be willing to underwrite the costs of endeavors that
generate economic benefits all year long? Convention centers, for
example? Or state tourism offices? Or film-promotion bureaus? All of
those are funded with government dollars, yet none provides a government
service. Their only justification is that they bring business to the
state. If that's the case, Massachusetts businesses ought to pay for
FleetBoston and Fidelity and Raytheon are pouring millions of
dollars into the Democratic convention because they think it will be
good for their bottom line. Companies that think a new convention
center will be good for their bottom line should be equally prepared
to put their money where their interests are. Let the private sector
pay for what the private sector values. That may sound like a
Republican teaching. How sweet to be learning it from a Democratic
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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