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An unconventional task

Setting up for the DNC is massive undertaking

It takes about six hours to convert Celtic Paul Pierce's parquet floor into Bruin Sergei Samsonov's ice. Workers need up to eight hours to put together the lights, speakers, and staging gimmicks for a performer such as Britney Spears. And setting up for the circus eats up a full 24 hours.

But those transformations don't come close to the time needed to ready the FleetCenter for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry: The Democrats and the FleetCenter have blocked out 48 days days to prepare the arena for the four-day Democratic National Convention, and another 13 days to return the building to its original state after the gala ends on July 29.

Beginning on June 8, several hundred workers will lay about 4,000 miles of video and audio cable, add 500 tons of extra air-conditioning coolant, and install hundreds of electrical outlets. To make room for the roughly 30-by-90-foot podium that will be the center of the action, they will have to remove as many as 2,000 seats from the arena's lower tier.

They will build about 20 temporary offices in the loading area near the Celtics' and Bruins' locker rooms and lay about 21,000 square feet of carpeting. They will take down the ceilings and walls in some of the FleetCenter's 104 executive suites to convert them into miniature studios for the television networks, and construct two media work areas on either side of the podium. Other reporters will be housed in a huge tent next to the FleetCenter.

Setting up for the convention is such a massive, intricate and lengthy undertaking that Democrats and FleetCenter officials insist it would be impossible at this point to move the event to the new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, as Governor Mitt Romney suggested last week.

"The notion that you could create a bowl like this somewhere else in the city on this timeline just doesn't fly," Alan Rose, the convention hall manager for the Democratic National Convention Committee, said during a tour of the FleetCenter last week. "And this is the only building of this kind in the city."

The first problem with the South Boston facility, Rose and other officials say, is that it won't be available for as long as the Democrats would need it: Macworld Expo, a major high-technology gathering, has booked a chunk of the convention center from July 12-16, days the Democrats would require to set up for their event.

But even if the convention center had an open schedule, they say, it is all wrong for a made-for-television event such as the convention. It doesn't have stadium-style seating, which provides clear sight lines for conventiongoers and television viewers, and it doesn't have the luxury suites favored by network anchors and well-heeled Democratic donors.

Peggy Wilhide, communications director for the Democratic National Convention Committee, said Boston would not have won the intense competition for the convention if it had offered the South Boston facility as a venue -- especially since it won't even be open until June. "One of the attractions of the FleetCenter is that it's been open for eight years. We know the systems in place. Those are the systems we looked at when we were deciding where to locate the convention," Wilhide said. "Had you put a convention hall currently under construction in front of us, we would have rejected it."

Democratic convention planners insist they need a bowl-like setting found in the FleetCenter and other indoor sports arenas; James Rooney, who heads the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, has declined to comment on what it would cost, and how long it would take, to create that configuration in the convention center, or to construct something akin to luxury boxes. Holding the convention at the FleetCenter will create some inconveniences for Boston residents and commuters: Because of security concerns, MBTA officials have recommended that North Station be closed to commuter rail and subway passengers for the duration of the convention, and there has been talk of shutting down the Central Artery for certain periods, as well.

In contrast, Romney said, the convention center "would be ideal in many respects" as a site for the Democrats.

"It doesn't have a train station underneath it, it doesn't have subway stations next to it, it doesn't have roadways next to it. It's a big building," Romney said last week. "I anticipate that when people find it difficult to come in and out of the city, they're going to ask a question: `Why wasn't this held at the new convention center?' "

But Democratic planners say Romney is ignoring months of planning that has already taken place, all of it focused on the FleetCenter. Their focus is to begin the construction on June 8 -- a date that could be pushed back in the unlikely event that the Celtics get into the NBA finals -- but the groundwork has already begun.

Convention and FleetCenter officials have been meeting with NSTAR about the configuration of generators and transformers that will be needed to power the party, and the US Secret Service has been formulating a security plan for the arena for more than a year. Network representatives have visited three times to check out the FleetCenter's executive suites and determine how they will retrofit them, and dozens of Democratic groups have come through to stake out their turf.

Architects and engineers began surveying the FleetCenter in the fall of 2003. Two months ago, convention organizers awarded a $3.5 million contract to Boston-based Shawmut Design and Construction to oversee the project, and the firm submitted its bid based on the FleetCenter. It will procure major construction supplies, including electrical transformers, air-conditioning chillers, cable, and wheelchair lifts, next week.

Boston 2004 has signed a $3.5 million lease agreement with the FleetCenter, and it has already paid a third of that amount. If it breaks its agreement with the arena, which had to clear its schedule to make way for the convention, it will be on the hook for the full $3.5 million, according to Boston 2004 spokeswoman Karen Grant. The FleetCenter had to pass up about a dozen events, including the US Olympic gymnastics trials and a Madonna concert, to host the convention.

Standing nine floors above the FleetCenter ice one day last week, a visitor had a bird's eye view of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst hockey team working out for this weekend's Hockey East Tournament. But on a table next to the rink, architects and engineers had already unrolled their blueprint for the convention.

"It works here, and it's designed to work here," Rose said.

Scott S. Greenberger can be reached at greenberger@globe.com

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