While you and I slumbered last night, the state Legislature, unbeknownst to anyone save two committee chairmen and a doorkeeper, may have secretly passed a measure authorizing $500 million for a new convention center somewhere in Boston; tacked on an emergency preamble; made it an amendment to a bill designating emerald green the official state color; and whisked it in the wee small hours of the morning to the desk of Acting Governor Paul Cellucci.
If that happened -- and given the odd hormonal chemistry between Weld-Cellucci and Bulger-Flaherty, it can't be ruled out -- the rest of this column is now moot.
But on the assumption that the convention-center conversation is still open this morning, here's a question: Why is this a government issue in the first place?
For more than two years, a small group of rich business people has been talking with a small group of influential political people about how to force the rest of us to pay for a new convention facility that will make them richer and more influential. They're still dickering over where this edifice we're going to build them should go, and they haven't decided if we'll be buying them just a convention hall, or a convention/stadium "megaplex." But they all agree that they want a shiny new convention center.
"I don't hear any dissenters on the convention portion of the project," reports Senate President Bill Bulger, who has a gift for not hearing dissenters.
"The need for additional convention space," echoes Chelsea Senator Tom Birmingham, Bulger's top lieutenant, is "bereft of controversy."
Is it, now?
This state spends $1.2 billion a year just to cover the interest on its existing debt. Sinking another half-billion or more into a new convention complex should not be "bereft of controversy" -- especially considering how wretchedly the last Massachusetts convention adventure turned out.
The Hynes Veterans Convention Center, the Money Pit of Boylston Street, has been a loss-maker from the day it opened in 1982. It has never turned a profit. We taxpayers were soaked for hundreds of millions of dollars to build the thing, and we get soaked every year for millions more to bail it out. Having hit ourselves over the head with an iron rod for the past dozen years, why would we now want to start whacking ourselves with two iron rods?
Because, say the hotel and tourism people, Boston desperately needs more convention space. Boston is dying from all the conventions that don't come here. We're losing millions -- no, billions -- of dollars in revenue! Maybe trillions!
"Our need," implores James Daley, owner of the Back Bay Hilton, "is to stop the bleeding and stop others from outbidding us and conventions not coming to Boston."
Without a megaplex, warns developer Robert Beal's so-called Alliance for Job Growth, Boston will "continue to drift in the pack as another also-ran.""We cannot wait much longer," intones economic consultant Jim Howell, in a recent newspaper column titled "Megaplex vital to city's health."
These crocodile tears and hyperventilation demonstrations make for good melodrama. But they are little more than self-interest masquerading as public-spiritedness.
Dire predictions notwithstanding, Boston is not turning into a ghost town for lack of out-of-state visitors. This city ranks 11th in the nation in the number of trade shows it hosts, and eighth in the number of conventions. The Hynes and the Bayside Expo Center are not the most immense halls in the country, but they are big enough to accommodate 90 percent of all conventions and trade shows. That is ample. So what if the most massive conventions go to Las Vegas and Atlanta? When exactly did massive become part of Boston's texture and style?
State-funded convention centers are chronic money losers. In a 1991 survey, Northwestern University professor Edwin Mills, a leading scholar on urban economics, concluded that "convention centers clearly represent an unwise investment of tax dollars." They invariably cost far more than their proponents estimate, and return far less. Textbook example: the Hynes fiasco.
Nobody would allow taxpayer money to be spent on hair salons or amusement parks or mail-order catalog firms. There is no excuse for using public dollars to construct convention halls, either. If Boston's hotel and tourism magnates think another convention center makes sense, let them risk their own funds to build one. If they are right, the rewards will be all theirs. If they are wrong, they alone will bear the loss.
The state can always help with building permits, sewer hookups, and so on, just as it can for any development. But it isn't for the state to underwrite the costs or absorb the perils. Operating a convention-center is a business enterprise like any other. If private entrepreneurs are willing to invest their own money in such a venture, terrific. If they're not, they have no business demanding that the government invest ours.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)