What Boston needs to do to capitalize on the Democratic National Convention

Political and civic leaders of smart, effective cities use big public events to achieve long-lasting development and social benefits. That’s what I’ve learned from six years of visits to world-class metropolises in this country and abroad in search of models for civic development.

These benefits are achieved because hosting high-profile occasions forces these cities to produce results that are driven by fixed deadlines. The July 2004 Democratic National Convention provides Boston’s civic leaders with the opportunity to use this huge event to forge enduring progress for the city and the Commonwealth. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s not too late to get started.

Every year since 1997, the City to City Program, which has taken Boston’s government, corporate, and nonprofit leaders to other cities to learn best practices, has taught me this important lesson over and over again. Hosting this annual excursion along with Mayor Thomas Menino and Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce president Paul Guzzi, I learned how Barcelona used the 1992 Olympic Summer Games to transform its blighted waterfront into a magnificent recreational, commercial, and housing mecca. One of Barcelona’s leaders told us that “public events must be used as an excuse to make pro-gress.” An inner-city road system was built to solve traffic gridlock, which had plagued the city for years. New parks and open spaces were brought into being as an antidote to population density. Venues for Olympic events were carefully placed around the city to enhance urban development in housing, recreation, and services throughout Barcelona. After the Summer Games, housing built for Olympic athletes, overlooking the transformed waterfront, was turned into mixed-income housing. Currently, Barcelona is planning Cultural Forum 2004, which will bring visitors from all over Europe and beyond to share cultural assets in many fields. The city has built a much-needed convention center as the main venue for the forum.

Atlanta used the 1996 Olympic Summer Games as an excuse to build a large international terminal at its airport, which also lifted minority businesses to a new level of wealth through construction contracts and concessions. Fulfilling a major objective of black political leaders, 60 percent of the businesses at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport are minority-owned. In addition, the major colleges were sites for newly constructed Olympic sports venues, later owned and used by these institutions of higher education. Atlanta leaders built state-of-the-art stadiums for football and baseball at the Summer Games, and they are now the homes of the Falcons and the Braves, the city’s professional teams. Centennial Park, a gathering place for Olympic visitors, was built to spur physical renewal in a blighted area of the city.

Both Barcelona and Atlanta used the opportunity of the Olympic Games to build more tourist-friendly services and amenities, sending positive messages about the advantages of their cities as the media beamed the events around the world. Consequently, both cities have experienced higher international name recognition and an exponential rise in tourism.

Boston leaders have a similar opportunity with 6,000 convention delegates, and five times that number in party and media hangers-on, about to descend on the city. Soon, our city and its FleetCenter will host one of the largest gatherings in the country. Through this opportunity, Boston and its leaders have the chance, even the imperative, to reinvent the Hub of the Universe as a more visitor-friendly city, and create a legacy of civic improvement that will last a generation.

Boston has long been a tourist destination for its beauty and its history. But it’s never been an easy place to visit. Arrival and departure for guests by air, train, and bus are confusing and unpleasant. Those who try to drive here find the absence of clear street signage daunting. Here is an agenda for making our fair city navigable:

At Logan Airport

  • Install better signage on roadways and within the terminals;

  • Provide comfortable, creative waiting areas in response to the needs of parents with children, the elderly, and the handicapped;

  • Establish an orderly system of taxi and private-car arrival at terminals to eliminate chaos at curbside baggage check-in and access points to terminal entrances;

  • Require air carriers to provide information to arriving passengers about basic services available at Logan before landing;

  • Provide 21st-century Travelers Aid services for visitors in crisis or distress;

  • Instruct airport taxi drivers on how to deliver their passengers to their destinations in a courteous, efficient way, and to provide important information and courtesies to visitors in a consumer-friendly manner;

  • Provide better information services and travel assistance at the MBTA airport station on the Blue Line, including T and city maps.

At hotels

  • Upgrade arrival and check-in services;

  • Provide excellent concierge services, including information about city transportation systems, cultural and historic venues, and major events;

  • Experiment with a jitney service to get hotel guests to public transportation and from major MBTA stations to important venues. This could be the forerunner of a jitney service eventually available to the general public, a way to keep private cars out of the city and prevent downtown gridlock;

  • Program the city’s cable access channel to provide essential information and advice to visitors;

  • Inform hotel guests about organized tours of neighborhoods given by MYTOWN and other groups. Currently, out-of-town guests are discouraged from visiting neighborhoods outside downtown, but those neighborhoods include rich historic, cultural, and recreational resources.

At Boston’s visitor centers

  • Use innovative technology to assist visitors in conducting self-guided tours through our very walkable city.

But these visitor amenities are just the start. The financial resources associated with the Democratic National Convention provide an opportunity to enhance our small and mid-sized arts and cultural institutions, which should serve as attractions for convention delegates and their families. These institutions are usually disadvantaged by philanthropy that is skewed toward large cultural organizations. We need to properly showcase such groups as the Museum of Afro-American History, the Boston History Collaborative and its creative tours of the Boston region by land and sea, MYTOWN, Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, ArtsBoston and its BosTix service, the Boston Children’s Museum, the Dorchester Arts Alliance, the ACT Roxbury Consortium, the Topf Center for Dance Education, and the Boston Children’s Chorus. If we were to squander the opportunity to help such nonprofit groups in our preparation for this enormous public event, it would be utter folly.

Even if we were to properly showcase Boston’s cultural assets, we would not be done yet. Creating a great legacy for the city of Boston means moving forward Boston’s development agenda, both commercial and cultural. At the top of that agenda is the build-out of the new Seaport District in South Boston. There has never been a development opportunity this big or this important since the draining of the Back Bay.

The Democratic National Convention can be a vehicle to jump-start development and infrastructure improvements in this blossoming area of the city. Mayor Menino’s decision to provide $40 million in loans, backed by HUD Section 108 funding, to accelerate the building of hotels in the Seaport District is very smart. The viability of the new Convention Center, soon to be completed, depends on the availability and proximity of hotel rooms. Similarly, transportation officials need to use the Democratic convention as an excuse to launch transit initiatives more creative than the Silver Line, which is inadequate to the transportation needs in the Seaport District.

At the intersection of development and culture is the Institute for Contemporary Art, which will build a new magnificent museum in the Seaport District. The new ICA, situated on land donated by the Pritzker family, owners of the Hyatt Hotel Corp., is an example of the kind of collaboration needed to bring cultural and public facilities to an area of Boston that could attract the diverse peoples of the city, becoming a new neighborhood for all. Other private and public developers should take heed and donate land to nonprofit groups, which could create other attractive venues and programs for the public. If they take action prior to the convention, these landowners could announce such donations in a way that would show visitors a collaboration and generosity that will drive Boston in the 21st century.

Among these visitors will be media from around the world, many of them seeking to unearth stories concerning civic squabbles of all kinds. In the process of bringing the convention to Boston, city leaders have worked hard to convince the Democratic National Committee that Boston has moved beyond old matters of racial unrest. Boston is still far from racial nirvana; however, recent efforts to increase racial inclusion have been a healthy development. Nonetheless, race is not the last of our internecine squabbles, and we would do well to eliminate further matters of public contention so that Boston’s assets can be fully appreciated and enjoyed.

City and state officials need to resolve differences regarding the building of the Rose Kennedy Greenway over the post-Big Dig Surface Artery, including plans for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society to build its Garden Under Glass at the seam joining the Financial District and the newly developed waterfront. Matthew Amorello, chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, has recently proposed the creation of an independent, nonprofit conservancy to have authority for the maintenance and operation of the Greenway. The convention should give Gov. Romney, Mayor Menino, and the state Legislature an incentive to fashion an agreement concerning this matter of oversight and operational control over a new‹and key‹public asset.

In the same vein, the Garden Under Glass initiative should not live or die based on the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s ability to fund it. Civic and political leaders should take responsibility for securing the required funding, or abandon it. Only collective action will raise the public and private dollars needed to ensure that this exciting venue anchors the Greenway. If it does not, placing the blame on a small nonprofit entity will be no excuse for leaving desolate the reclaimed land between downtown and the harbor.

It may be impolitic to say so, but in every major event, what’s most prominently at stake is the spoils. Mayor Menino, through the operation of Boston 2004 Committee, has promised that the distribution of contracts for services associated with the convention will give businesses owned and operated by people of color unprecedented business opportunities. This, in itself, is a breakthrough. If the contract award system developed by the city achieves the promised results, it should be institutionalized and used by city and state governments, as well as the managers of future public events and development projects, to spread prosperity through this city’s multiracial entrepreneurial class. This could be one of the major civic legacies of the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Unless the creation of wealth for people of color in Boston becomes a civic priority, the vision of Boston becoming a world-class city within the next two decades will be stillborn.

But what happens before, and leading up to, the convention is only part of the civic renewal story. Smart, effective cities move quickly to achieve improvements made possible by the assets and leverage generated by such an event. Boston needs to do the same thing. We now need to put in place a credible body of civic and political leaders who are charged to begin their work the moment the Democratic National Convention adjourns. The civic agenda they should undertake includes the following:

  • Knit South Boston and the North End to the commercial core through creative building on the Greenway and in the Seaport District;

  • Make arts and cultural programs a high civic priority through greater private and public funding of small and mid-sized arts and cultural organizations;

  • Use development projects to improve opportunities for entrepreneurs of color and small businesses;

  • Ensure that public events in the city are enjoyed by the diverse peoples of the city and region;

  • Keep gentrification in city neighborhoods from eliminating affordable housing for the working class and the poor;

  • Meet the Author

    Create decent life chances for Boston’s youth by providing better schooling, recreational programs, and jobs.

The Democratic National Convention can be the occasion for substantial progress on this civic agenda. However, no one public event, no matter how adroitly exploited, can help our leadership accomplish all of its unfinished business. Mayor Menino worked very hard for five years to have Boston chosen as the site for the Democratic National Convention because he believed that it could further the social and economic progress of the city. Corporate Boston joined this effort by donating millions of dollars to secure this monumental event. We dare not squander this collective investment in our city’s civic progress.

Hubie Jones is dean emeritus of Boston University School of Social Work and former special assistant to the chancellor of University of Massachusetts­Boston