Olympics, BCEC expansion not on Chamber dinner menu

Two big issues facing Boston's business community - the 2024 Olympics bid and the stalled expansion of New England's largest building - were virtual no-shows at a dinner Wednesday night where the city's titans of industry gathered and heard from principal backers of those proposals.

Executives gathered at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center to see the torch passed at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, which has an incoming president and chairman.

Before departing for a Boston Health Care for Homeless gala, Gov. Charlie Baker offered optimism about another issue facing the business community and the region: the trouble transit system and the efforts to reform it.

Saying he knows he has the "full attention of the Legislature and the leadership," Baker said fixing the MBTA will improve the rest of the transportation system. He said, "It's all one transportation system, folks."

James Rooney, the incoming president of the chamber and outgoing executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, has worked for years to expand the building he helped construct - and where guests wined and dined Wednesday

Suffolk Construction Chairman and CEO John Fish, who is stepping down as chairman of the chamber, has championed the idea of transforming an industrial area at Widett Circle into the Olympic Stadium for a 2024 Summer Games held in Boston.

Neither man mentioned either of those endeavors in their speeches to the crowd of nearly 2,000 on Wednesday.

"Tonight's all about the chamber," Fish told the News Service.

The Olympics effort has labored against unenthusiastic public opinion and Baker put an indefinite pause on the $1 billion expansion project.

Fish did offer another puzzle for the room: handling President Barack Obama's signature health care law and confronting a higher education issue championed by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

"One would argue with the dawn of ObamaCare and the relentless and rising costs of college tuitions our traditional knowledge-based sectors of health care and education, which we have relied upon for so long, are currently under siege," Fish said. He told the News Service those were challenges he hoped would be addressed.

Incoming Chairman Navjot Singh, a chemical engineer and Boston director of the international consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, made coy reference to the stalled convention center expansion plans.

"We are all ready for the Rooney magic in the coming years," Singh said after Baker had departed the event. "And our first challenge to him is we have around 1,900 people in this room today and we could have had more, but we ran out of space."

Along with outgoing Chamber President Paul Guzzi and Brigham and Women's Health Care President Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, the chamber bestowed a "distinguished Bostonian" award on Diane Patrick, co-managing partner at the law firm Ropes & Gray and the wife of former Gov. Deval Patrick.

The former first lady described her initial reticence to move with her new husband and 1-year-old daughter from New York to Boston in the mid-1980s. At that time Boston was emerging from a bitter dispute over the court-ordered desegregation of city schools, which clouded the city's image around the country.

"I was not particularly interested in coming to Boston. Boston did not have a stellar reputation for being welcoming to people of color. One of the things I was concerned about Boston was it didn't have street signs," Diane Patrick said. She said, "Deval convinced me to come to Boston and I have never looked back. This is a great city. Its reputation for being unwelcoming is no longer true. You do learn to get around the streets despite the lack of street signs."

The former governor now works at Bain Capital where he is based in Boston and is building a new business focused on investments with significant social impact. At the dinner, he greeted Baker with a handshake and a hug and declined to offer comment to the News Service. After greeting a reporter, Deval Patrick said, "No comment. No comment" before any question had been posed.

The dinner raised $1.5 million for the chamber, according to one of the presenters.



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