Jewish World Review Nov. 25, 2002 / 20 Kislev, 5763

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Consumer Reports

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 Bunker Hill.

"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 threshold here."

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 case.

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 them.

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 convention.

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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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