Wu got use of MGM Music Hall at no charge

Venue is owned by Fenway Sports Group

BOSTON MAYOR Michelle Wu spent $62,000 on her State of the City address at the end of January, but there was no cost to actually rent the venue where she delivered her speech.

According to invoices obtained under the state public records law, the Mayor’s Office of Tourism, Sports, and Entertainment spent just over half the money on rented audio equipment, stage hands, event staff, and security. The rest went for consultants, desserts, bartenders, a disc jockey, flowers, drapes, and flags.

The public records request, however, turned up no payments for renting the MGM Music Hall venue, where Wu delivered her address. Ricardo Patrón, a spokesman for the mayor, confirmed that the facility was provided at no charge.

“The city received an offer regarding use of the facility and accepted,” he said.

The MGM Music Hall is owned by the Fenway Sports Group, which also owns nearby Fenway Park and the Boston Red Sox as well as considerable property near the park. The Music Hall is operated by the Fenway Music Company, a joint venture between Fenway Sports Management and national concert promoter Live Nation.

“As a community-focused venue, we were honored to host Mayor Wu at the MGM Music Hall for her State of the City address,” said Jay Anderson of the Fenway Music Company in an email. He added that the city is paying “all costs associated with the event.” He did not respond to an inquiry asking what it typically costs to rent the Music Hall for functions.

CommonWealth reached out to others at Fenway Sports Group but they declined comment.

Former Boston mayor Marty Walsh delivered at least four of his State of the City addresses at Symphony Hall.  Officials there declined to comment on the financial arrangements with Walsh, although a source familiar with the dealings said his administration paid the fair market facility charge to use Symphony Hall.

The Fenway Sports Group, whose top officers are John Henry (principal owner), Thomas Werner (chairman), and Michael Gordon (president), is involved through another one of its subsidiaries, the Fenway Sports Real Estate Group, in developing a major real estate project called Fenway Corners. The company is working with two partners in the venture — WS Development and the D’Angelo family, owners of the Red Sox Team Store across from Fenway Park on Jersey Street. Henry also owns the Boston Globe.

The Fenway Corners project will require the approval of the city’s Boston Planning and Development Agency for the construction of roughly 2 million square feet of office space, retail stores, restaurants, laboratories, and apartments on more than five acres spread across four streets surrounding Fenway Park. The project envisions the closing off of Jersey Street permanently to vehicles to create a “pedestrian plaza.” The project area also includes air rights over the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Opinions varied on the propriety of the Wu administration accepting free access to a facility owned by a company with business before the city.

“With the huge project they have before the city, I can certainly see why some might say that the Fenway Sports Group not charging the mayor to use the MGM facility is a conflict of interest,” said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor and vice president at Stonehill College. “But it’s really a gray area. It may be that the Fenway Sports Group simply wants to demonstrate to city officials that they are civically minded.”

Sam Tyler, former president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, doesn’t see it as being gray.

“Paying no facility fee for using the MGM Music Hall is a conflict of interest given the circumstances,” he said. “Even the appearance of conflicting interests would raise questions regarding subsequent city actions concerning the Fenway Sports Group. The city saw fit to pay for the related expenses of the State of the City event. So it certainly could have just as easily paid the facility fee as well and eliminated any appearance of a conflict of interest.” 

Delaney Marsco, senior legal counsel for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, DC, a nonpartisan organization that promotes ethics laws at the state and local level,  said even an appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided because citizens need to trust their government officials to act in the best interest of the public. 

If she were an advisor to the mayor, Marsco said that she would have cautioned her about accepting free use of the Music Hall. “I would tell her this: If your use of the MGM facility could call into question the appearance of a lack of neutrality on some issues that are going to come across your desk, I would advise you to either pay fair market value for the space or find another space that doesn’t raise conflict of interest questions.”