‘Everyone is nervous’: With a Hynes sale on the horizon, workers’ livelihoods are at stake

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Governor Charlie Baker introduced a bill in 2019 to sell the Hynes because the decades-old Back Bay facility is becoming too expensive to maintain. The pandemic stalled that effort, but last week the governor reintroduced legislation to unload the Hynes and use the proceeds for affordable housing. It sits on prime real estate for redevelopment and could fetch hundreds of millions of dollars. The state has already stopped booking events at the Hynes after December 31, 2023.

Rodrigues, like other members of Unite Here Local 26, thinks shutting down the Hynes is a bad idea. Not only will it harm those who work there and in nearby hotels, but stores and restaurants that rely on conventioneers as customers could also lose business.

“It’s like a punch,” said Donnell Beverly, 45, who worked as a bartender at the Hynes for 16 years. “It’s going to be a lot of people affected.”

Unite Here is officially opposed to the sale, but also acknowledges that it may not be able to stop it. The union represents about 200 Hynes-linked food and beverage workers and several thousand more who work at Back Bay hotels, from housekeepers to bellhops.

Donnell Beverly, a longtime employee of the Hynes.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The union, in a recent letter to the legislators, indicated that if a sale takes place, the state is expected to ensure the redevelopment includes 150,000 square feet of meeting space, a request also made by the Back Bay Association and the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay.

The union is also pushing for the creation of two hardship funds — of at least $5 million each — in case Hynes and hotel employees lose their jobs and wants laid-off workers to have the right of first refusal for new jobs created at the Hynes site.

Carlos Aramayo, president of Unite Here Local 26, said well-paying jobs allow many of its members, who live in black and brown communities from East Boston to Roxbury, to keep a roof over their heads.

“You’re going to eliminate a bunch of good jobs and a very important part of the Greater Boston area hotel economy that gives people jobs so they can afford housing…that’s kind of a crazy math.” , said Aramayo. “Rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Rep. Jay Livingstone, whose district includes Back Bay, said voters had mixed feelings about a sale. Some want the Hynes out of government hands to end years of flip-flops over what to do with the facility – every governor seems to have a new idea for that.

Others want to wait until 2023 when a new governor might see the Hynes sale differently. This happened during the last gubernatorial transition. Deval Patrick signed a $1 billion expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, but Baker held him back months after he took office.

Livingstone worries about the notoriously long time it takes to build in Boston and what would happen during that time.

“One of the most important things is to make sure that any workers who depend on the Hynes, directly or indirectly at a neighboring business, are not overlooked,” Livingstone said. “Development projects of this complexity, from start of permitting to completion of construction, typically take five years at the fastest.”

He is being conservative. A Hynes project could easily take a decade, and that’s if the economy keeps buzzing. How many people might be out of work – temporarily or permanently, and for how long – is a bit of a moving target.

The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which operates both the Hynes and the BCEC, argues that staff from the Hynes will be transferred to the BCEC. Many workers already work shifts at both locations. Sounds grand – if enough conventions come to town. And what about the thousands of other Back Bay hospitality workers whose shifts are tied to whether or not the Hynes host conferences?

The case for redeveloping the Hynes into a sprawling mixed-use project – whether office, retail, housing or laboratory – is that there will be a multitude of jobs from the other side. A construction of the site could generate around 5,000 construction jobs and eventually the new development could create 7,200 permanent jobs compared to 1,700 currently, according to a recent economic analysis by MCCA and the Baker administration.

However, the state recognizes that there could be short-term pain. Its newly filed legislation proposes that 20% of the Hynes product be used to “mitigate the impacts of the sale”, including the effect on private sector employees, residents and businesses. (The rest would go to building affordable housing — 50% in Boston and 30% outside the city.)

If I read the political tea leaves correctly, it seems there are less concerns about whether the Hynes should be sold and more about the terms under which such a transaction might take place.

Setting aside hardship funds is a no-brainer. This is part of how downtown and North End small businesses survived the Big Dig. They received money to help with marketing, signage, and other improvements.

Gov. Charlie Baker introduced a bill in 2019 to sell state-owned Hynes as the decades-old Back Bay facility becomes too expensive to maintain.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

When it comes to meeting spaces, Baker’s legislation nods to the need for space for meetings, gatherings or public use, but hardly offers the kind of guarantee that the hotel union and the neighborhood hoped. The big hotels in Back Bay – the Marriott, the Westin and the Sheraton – are all connected to the Hynes and were intended to accommodate thousands of conventioneers.

“It was built as an ecosystem,” said Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president of the Back Bay Association. “By making sure you add meeting space, you make sure the ecosystem can continue.”

So let’s end where we started – with the people who can least afford to lose a paycheck.

Rodrigues, the banquet waitress, fears she won’t find a better job. As an immigrant from Cape Verde, she started working in fish factories in Boston, but a union job at a hotel gave her a stable schedule and salary. In a normal year, she estimates she can earn about $2,000 a week.

“It was life changing to this day,” Rodrigues said. “I am forever grateful.”

Her 62-year-old sister is a housekeeper at another Back Bay hotel, the Colonnade.

“How will she find another job?” said Rodrigues. “She won’t work enough hours.”

As I’ve written before, I’m all for exploring selling the Hynes. There is a chance to do something extraordinary. It’s the Big Dig of Back Bay – with all the good, bad and ugly that comes with that analogy.

By depressing the central thoroughfare, Boston endured years of hard work, but the project brought us new tunnels, the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the Seaport District.

Hotels and businesses will fight to stay alive. It is the people displaced by change who are too often left behind. We see them now. Let’s not ignore them.


Shirley Leung is a business columnist. She can be contacted at shirley.leung@globe.com.

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