For Boston, convention is boost and a bane

The Democratic National Convention has forced the city to consider both its reputation and its risks.

Former Democratic Party Chairman Donald Fowler remembers when the threat of terrorism at political conventions recalled implausible plots in Hollywood movies.

While planning the '88 Democratic convention in Atlanta, security officials warned Mr. Fowler and the governor that commuter trains under the stadium could, theoretically, be loaded with dynamite and ignited by a bazooka.

Fowler thought the idea was absurd. "I was worried that we were wasting the governor's time listening to that," says Fowler, now a political consultant in Richland County, S.C.

But as the first political conventions after 9/11 near, preventing terrorism is second only to the selection of candidates in convention priorities. "These conventions are prime targets for terrorist activity," says security consultant Bo Dietl. After the terrorist bombing of a Madrid commuter train, the perception of a threat rose significantly, say experts, because both convention sites are connected with train stations.

Boston's North Station, which sits across the street from the convention site, will be closed before and during the four-day event. According to preliminary reports, a nearby interstate will be closed during evening rush hour.

The Secret Service has yet to announce any closures related to the Republican convention in August. But given that New York's Madison Square Garden sits directly above Penn Station, a major commuter hub, some believe the security threat could be even greater.

The strictures, and their burdens on the city's population, have complicated the task of hosting. What was once a clear boon to party leaders has become a gambit that risks alienating local residents and businesses, as the convention brings with it not only the national spotlight, but the full weight of American security.

"If I were a city father, even with all the wonderful publicity and everything else, I'm not sure it [would be] worth it to me," says Fowler.

Boston's convention site is at a crossroads of city life. In one direction is historic Beacon Hill, where red-brick mansions overlook the Charles River; in the other is the North End, a quaint 19th century Italian neighborhood with Paul Revere's house, Old North Church, and scores of restaurants and pastry shops.

The area teems with Boston lore, and Mayor Thomas Menino hopes the mystique will impress visitors and TV viewers. But what looks good on TV can be nightmare to those planning security.

The conflict here between aesthetics and safety illustrates the complexity of choosing a site that satisfies both imagemakers and security officials. "I don't think the security risks were really thought about carefully," says Mr. Dietl, a security consultant who worked at the '92 and '96 Republican conventions in Houston and San Diego.

Boston commuters will be forced to leave their trains earlier than usual and take buses or alternative transportation into the city. And thousands of drivers will need to find different routes out of the city if a curfew is put in place for the highway.

But as the city's Big Dig nears completion, the added hassles, for many, simply seem more of the same. "It will probably mean getting up even earlier to get to work," says Michael Jones, who rides a train every morning from Boston's Dorchester neighborhood to North Station.

Most residents believe that the benefits of hosting outweigh the costs, but 56 percent oppose the decision to shut down North Station and Interstate 93, according to a Boston Globe poll.

Large companies, like Massachusetts General Hospital, will offer flex hours to administrative employees with more complicated commutes, says Paul Guzzy, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has proposed moving the event to the convention center in South Boston, where fewer commuters and businesses would be affected. But the priests of political theater, and local business officials, say moving the site outside the heart of Boston is out of the question.

"The neighborhood is important," says Mr. Guzzy. "People will be writing about what they see and feel, and what they'll see is the city's great transformation."

The value of place is increasingly important at political conventions, say experts, with selections of the party ticket often a foregone conclusions. Journalists, they say, often turn to the city itself to fill dead hours and empty pages. "That kind of drama [of past conventions] doesn't exist anymore, so folks need other things to do and think about," says Guzzy.

Security concerns notwithstanding, the responsibility of hosting a successful convention almost precludes a massive closure of transportation hubs. While officials admit that major transportation systems are a possible target, they are loath to go without them.

"With any major event, you need to move a large number of people," says Greg Hull, president of the American Public Transportation Association. "It's a critical component to a successful event."

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