My Story: Jim Rooney
Boston Convention & Exhibition Center executive director Jim Rooney grew up in Southie--one of 11 brothers--and started working as a track laborer for the MBTA in '76. A decade ago, he managed the construction of the BCEC on the waterfront; now, he's shepherding its $2B expansion.
In the '60s and '70s, Jim grew up one mile from the BCEC when "every mother in Southie was your mother," he recalls. (That's a lot of women telling you to turn your music down.) But one survey also deemed the neighborhood among the country's toughest and poorest. The waterfront was gritty: Cobblestone streets were filled with warehouses, while the air was filled with the stink of rotten eggs at low tide from garbage dumped into the harbor. Much industry was leaving, but fishing lingered. In the '90s and 2000s, massive public works projects cleaned the harbor and improved transportation (aka the Big Dig). Now the South Boston waterfront is a global gateway market, and Jim lives two miles away in Dorchester. "That's the extent of my social climbing."
He's confident that the $2B BCEC expansion plan he and his team (Geoffrey Lewis, Ali Butler, Howard Davis and Michelle Ho) submitted to the legislature last month will be approved. Four years in the making, it doesn't call for any new fees. (We can all thank him for that.) It funds the project from existing tourist and hospitality revenues. Since most hotels are in Boston and Cambridge, the expansion won't drain funds from elsewhere in the state. Nor will it take from the state's general fund that supports schools and hospitals. Jim has his political bases covered. Up to 30 months of construction could start by mid '15.
The plan (rendered above) calls for two mid-priced hotels on D Street with 510 rooms; a HQ hotel with up to 1,500 rooms; and the 1.3M SF expansion of the convention center that will add 335k SF of exhibition space, more meeting space, and a second larger ballroom to attract larger conventions. (Don't make fun of Star Trek... those Trekkies spend cash.) The 2,000 new hotel rooms will give Boston about 4,000 rooms in walking distance to the BCEC compared to 7,600 for rival host cities. To mitigate the cost of the two smaller hotels for the private developer chosen last summer--Commonwealth Ventures--the MCCA will accept a payment in lieu of taxes, has purchased the land, and will build the parking (120 spaces).
Jim, at a recent industry event with daughter Jaimie, recalled that from 2001 to 2003, when he managed the construction of the existing BCEC, the waterfront was still somewhat raw and his office was in a trailer. "Do we have to tell people you're working down here?" she asked. Since then, there's been the completion of the BCEC, the transportation infrastructure, and several private developments that have given Boston the "hardware" to compete. Now, Jim says, his job is to create the "software": the parks, retail, and cultural venues to make the once forlorn waterfront an even cooler place. Jim is a grad of Boston Latin, Harvard, and attended BU School of Management.