Mega-Dealing May Result In `Megaplex' for Boston

Legislators to vote this week on proposed stadium/convention center

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BAY State lawmakers are faced with a nagging question as they consider a new convention center and football stadium for Boston: If Massachusetts builds it, will the promised jobs, revenues, and tourist business come?

This week, legislators will debate plans to build the $700 million facility that is slated to be the new home for the New England Patriots football team.

Legislation for the new ``megaplex'' building - which includes a domed stadium and a state-of-the-art convention center - may be taken up by the House of Representatives as early as today, and by the Senate later this week.

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Gov. William Weld (R), the chief megaplex propopent, hopes to have the bill passed and signed into law this week.

Mr. Weld and business leaders say the megaplex will bring a substantial economic boost to the region, creating 14,000 construction jobs and 13,000 permanent spin-off jobs.

Extra convention space is needed, they argue, because Boston currently ranks 41st in convention-center capacity among major cities. ``A megaplex is necessary to put Boston back into the top tier of American cities in terms of convention space and attracting events both nationally and internationally,'' Weld said at a public hearing last week.

Patriots officials have long pushed the idea of building a new football stadium; they say the privately owned Foxborough, Mass., facility they now use is too small. Since the team is up for sale, Weld has told lawmakers the megaplex is urgently needed to attract a local buyer for the franchise.

Legislators are responding to Weld's call with mixed reactions. Although most support the idea of expanding convention space, lawmakers are debating whether a new stadium is needed and how to finance it.

Some have suggested increasing hotel and tourism taxes to finance the new project. But Weld is adamant about not raising taxes. His original plan, unveiled last summer, would finance the project through state bonds supported by revenues raised from five floating casino boats. The governor has since backed away from the idea.

This week, he brokered an agreement with House Speaker Charles Flaherty (D) and Senate President William Bulger (D) for a new megaplex bill.

The compromise plan would raise money through state bonds backed by a 10 percent surcharge on megaplex event tickets. Other revenue-raising measures in the bill include selling the naming rights of the megaplex and raising private funds for a portion of the project.

Speaker Flaherty's legislation also would raise another $100 million in state bonds for other Massachusetts communities outside the Boston area who wish to rebuild or expand their convention space.

ESPITE the new legislative compromise, the megaplex bill is still not a sure thing. Even if it is passed soon, major amendments could well be added.

Some lawmakers, for instance, question the proposed megaplex site, a 42-acre lot in Boston off the Southeast Expressway in the South Bay area. Public transportation and highway access to the site is limited, concerns have been raised about hazardous-waste contamination, and the cost for building parking space is not clear, says state Rep. Marc Draisen (D).

But, he adds, ``The biggest single issue is whether this is going to cost us money or make us some money.''

Even supporters of the megaplex, such as Flaherty, say the legislature, or General Court, should consider other spending initiatives before rushing the convention-stadium bill through.

``Any time any governmental entity proceeds with a substantial development project, it is, in effect, deciding against another one,'' the Speaker says. ``You have to ask: `A megaplex instead of what?' Suppose we just created a technological innovation fund for education in the elementary schools in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? ... What would the long-range payoff be on that versus this?''

If it is finally built, Boston's megaplex would be the largest facility of its kind in the country, says Nancy Sterling of ML Strategies in Boston, a media consulting firm that is working with business leaders on the megaplex proposal.

Two other cities have built stadium and convention center complexes. Indianapolis's Hoosier Dome connects a convention center and stadium through an enclosed walkway and Atlanta has a similar facility. Ms. Sterling says more cities are looking into the idea of combining convention centers and sports stadiums.

``They are doing it because they find the convention business is an extremely lucrative business,'' she says. ``It provides a huge economic boost to cities and towns, and studies have shown that sports stadiums on their own cannot be economically feasible.''

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