9:22 PM EST, January 23, 2014
It's pretty much a done deal that MGM Resorts will win a license to build an $800 million casino with a hotel and conference center in Springfield. So what are we going to get in our backyard?
Top MGM executives delivered their final, formal plea Thursday to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in Boston — not taking for granted the impending vote in their favor — and the picture is fantastic for the community and the region, setting aside that nagging issue about gambling itself.
Most of the details have long been public, but these executives, with close ties to Connecticut, made a broader case for a casino in the south end of downtown Springfield that's more built into the fabric of the surrounding community than any the world has seen.
The integration runs the spectrum — using historic buildings in the design, promoting at least 12 events a year at the MassMutual Center arena and other venues, invigorating Symphony Hall, incorporating local hotels and restaurants in the business plan, developing apartments for young professionals, and deploying corporate partnerships — most notably with Southwest Airlines — to upgrade services in the Hartford-Springfield corridor.
Southwest could be key because it's responsible for 40 percent of all flights to Las Vegas, where MGM has vast holdings on the Strip. "When we speak, they do listen to us," said Bill Hornbuckle, the MGM Resorts president and chief marketing officer.
The picture, as a whole, is of a destination that moves further away from the old model of a "supermarket" casino, with all the activity inside a big box, toward a model that builds on the neighborhoods around it, starting with historic structures already there.
Hornbuckle, who graduated from East Catholic High School in Manchester and attended UConn before transferring to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas to study hotel management, said the planners visited Blue Back Square in West Hartford.
"We went down and understood that environment, what works, what doesn't work so well," he said.
Fittingly, there are, for example, 19 different entrances in the MGM casino plan, and the project would have no ticketed live entertainment venues inside.
"This is about engagement with the entire community," Hornbuckle said. "If you don't want to engage with the casino, you don't have to. We're not going to force it."
That's something of a paternalistic approach, as the whole financial point of the enterprise is to lure gamblers in and take their money. But that argument is over; it won the day in Palmer, where voters defeated the Mohegan Sun plan, and in West Springfield, where Hard Rock International's plan was rejected, leaving MGM as the lone standing entrant in the competition for the western Massachusetts casino license.
So now it's a matter of working with the winner-in-waiting, MGM, which has already cut its deal with the city of Springfield and snagged the gaming commission's approval as a suitable company. A final vote is due by May, and the chairman has already told a TV station in Springfield that it's a likely yes.
At Thursday's presentation, Hornbuckle decried the fact that the highway cuts off the Connecticut River. He focused on neighborhood inclusion and renewal, showing a map with a blue-colored area to the south and east of the MGM site, and said that's the area where the company is working with business owners. MGM also plans to co-develop 53 market-rate apartments as part of its 14.5-acre site.
A little gentrification in a downtrodden city isn't such a bad thing.
The plan "takes the fiber and the fabric of Springfield and brings it to life," Hornbuckle said. "If we succeed there, the casino will take care of itself. If we are not successful, we've wasted $800 million."
This, of course, is what you'd expect executives to say as they kowtow to powerful commissioners in the jurisdiction that they're trying to crack. But MGM seems to be known as a good operator, with its share of industry awards for employment practices and community involvement.
The numbers are strong: 2,000 construction jobs, 3,000 direct jobs, 2,200 indirect jobs at vendors and nearby locations, a payroll of as much as $200 million, $130 million a year in added revenues for the state of Massachusetts. The deal with the city could mean $1 billion over 40 years, MGM officials said.
About 90 percent of hiring would come from the region, and 35 percent from the city of Springfield, which has double-digit unemployment.
As for Connecticut, the balance sheet will be harder to measure. Added wealth in a region is generally good for the whole region, but we get no direct fiscal benefit other than the taxes of casino workers who live on our side of the border, and we lose money as slot machine revenue payments from Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun continue to slide.
And we are clearly a target, as Jim Murren, the MGM Resorts chairman, made clear in the seat of power of New England's largest state. "I do give a damn about Connecticut because I'm from there," said Murren, who grew up in Fairfield. "I just want their money to come here."
Specifically, about 30 percent of projected revenue comes from Connecticut. The MGM executives took special aim at Mohegan Sun, in part over arena events. They mentioned their former partner, Foxwoods, barely if at all. But central Connecticut clearly is a battleground for all three casinos.
"We are ideally positioned to go into Hartford and attack," Hornbuckle said.
Murren publicly named Michael Mathis, the vice president for global casino development, as president of MGM Springfield. Mathis had just finished giving a presentation on community outreach, including agreements with surrounding towns. Several are in place and at least two are missing, including Longmeadow — where, Murren joked, Mathis might move with his family, if a deal is reached.
So it's all yucks and giggles north of the border, where we can expect to see MGM break ground this year. And it's the best possible plan for the region and for our neighbors in Springfield. The most community-integrated scheme won the day.
As for the fact that casinos, by their very nature, strip millions of dollars from some of the region's most vulnerable people, MGM participates in gambling addiction programs, executives said.
"We know at MGM Resorts that we cannot cure all of the ills that afflict our society," said Phyllis James, a Harvard-trained lawyer who heads corporate diversity and community affairs as a top vice president at MGM.
Whether they're causing some of those ills is, again, a debate that is over. James, instead, cited a goal that Springfield and the entire Connecticut River Valley can only hope comes true: "A shared belief that this is a better place because MGM Resorts is here."
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