SPRINGFIELD — The last obstacle removed, MGM Springfield moved forward Wednesday morning with plans to transform three city blocks into an $800 million gambling resort.
Contractors drilled for soil samples at the site of a closed school on Howard Street. It was only hours after state voters rejected a referendum that would have barred casinos in the Bay State.
There's plenty of work to be done, and a 33-month construction window.
Old brick buildings will be razed. Construction will follow, beginning with a parking garage, and ending in August 2017 — with the first customers coming through sometime between that August and February 2018.
The 141/2-acre site in downtown Springfield's South End is a mix of historic landmarks, low-slung retail buildings and empty parking lots. Several small businesses along Main Street will close in December, clearing out before demolition begins this winter.
"There won't be much time delay in terms of actually having to do things, because remember, demolition comes first and while the demolition is happening, design will be ongoing and interaction with the city will be ongoing," said Springfield's chief development officer, Kevin Kennedy.
The city is expecting to improve water and sewer pipes near the site as part of the construction, he said.
The site is roughly a rectangle bordered by Columbus Avenue and Union, Main and State streets. Some buildings slated for demolition were renovated after a June 2011 tornado ripped through the neighborhood. The scars of that storm are still evident today. Buildings are boarded up, left unrepaired. Apartments are still being renovated.
MGM Springfield is planning to adapt some historic buildings for reuse in the company's urban casino plan.
For example, the eight-story former Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Building, constructed in 1908 at Main and State streets, will be refurbished as administrative offices for MGM Springfield. The limestone building, with its Classical Revival design, was the tallest steel office structure in Springfield when it was built, which generated controversy at the time and led to building-height restrictions that lasted until the 1970s.
MGM's plan includes a towering glass hotel jutting skyward almost 300 feet. It will have about 282 standard rooms and 12 suites in the first phase and, in a second phase, 471 standard rooms and 24 suites. The casino will have 125,000 square feet of space, with more than 3,000 slots and 100 table games.
MGM Springfield plans to create a dining, retail and entertainment district with at least 15 shops and five restaurants; an eight-screen movie theater; an 18-lane bowling alley; 54 residential units; meeting space; a spa; pool and roof deck; and a child care center. Davenport Properties of Boston and MGM are partnering on the development.
A boarded-up stone castle, the former State Armory at 29 Howard St., is slated for renovation to become a restaurant and bar. The former Alfred G. Zanetti School, once also called the Howard Street School, a 109-year-old brick building, will be demolished to make room for a parking garage. Other buildings are coming down, too, including many along Main Street, to make room for the casino floor and mixed-use buildings with apartments, retail and restaurants.
Not all parcels in the three-block area are part of MGM Springfield's plans. Some existing businesses will remain untouched, such as the Red Rose pizzeria on Main Street and the Berkshire Bank building on Columbus Avenue.
Outside of the three-block site, MGM Springfield is planning to build a park on the Connecticut River with an outdoor summer plaza and an ice-skating rink in the winter.
Getting Ready To Go
Along Main Street, a couple of business owners who rent their space say they have to vacate in December, but neither is certain where to go.
Edith Augustin owns Salazar's Jewelry on Main Street, and she had heard that there might be funds to help her relocate her business, but she wasn't clear on the details.
Yonok Elsner has owned OMI Oriental Grocery on Main Street for seven years. She has looked at retail space in West Springfield because the rent at other buildings in the South End is going up with the prospect of the casino development, she said. The trouble is that her customers might not know where she's moved.
"I don't want to do anything," Elsner said. "I want to stay right here. But if you have to move, you move."
Dave Dudley, 75, sold his furniture store at Main and Union streets to MGM. They paid him a good price for the building, he said.
"I've been down here 40 years," Dudley said. "People used to come to the South End. It was a very lively town."
A slow decline was made worse by the 2011 tornado, which destroyed apartment buildings where some of his recent customers lived.
"Now it's going to be a lively town again," he said.
Dudley doesn't plan to move his business. "I'm 75 years old," he said. "It's time for me to get out of here."