SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — There is now officially a competition to build a casino in Springfield. The Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International on Wednesday unveiled plans for a downtown Springfield urban entertainment zone, to include a casino.
Two days earlier, executives from Ameristar of Kansas City presented preliminary plans to a city council committee for a casino in East Springfield.
MGM executives say they want to help revitalize Springfield’s core. But beyond all the glitz and glamour, local business owners and residents have mixed feelings on the casino idea.
A Big Change
At Red Rose Pizzeria and Restaurant on Main Street here, pizzas were going in and out of the ovens non-stop and chefs sauteed mushrooms to make sauce — typical action for a Wednesday night. But this Wednesday was unusual.
“We’ve got 30 officials from the MGM coming in. They’ve got to eat somewhere — why not here?” asked owner Tony Caputo.
Thirty big-wigs from one of the world’s biggest casino resort development companies buying dinner from him, that’s a good thing, right? The chairman and CEO of MGM even gave Red Rose a shout-out earlier in the day, during his big, slick presentation about the company’s casino proposal for Springfield. But Caputo still doesn’t know how he feels about the proposed casino development that would be located right next door to his restaurant.
“It’s quite overwhelming,” Caputo said. “We’re very happy being here. We’ve been here 50 years. We want to be here another 50 years. We’ve got 80 people working here. We’re concerned about their well-being. Thousands of customers. Whenever there’s change, you don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
And talk about a proposed change for downtown Springfield. With Beatles music blaring and Cirque du Soleil actors entertaining them, a crowd of invited politicians, business owners and community activists streamed into a ballroom at the MassMutual Center as invited guests of MGM. Before having lunch and getting gift baskets, MGM Chairman Jim Murren told them the company wants to revitalize a three-square-block area in the downtown’s South End with new shops, restaurants, a movie theater, bowling alley nightclub, hotel and casino.
“You have great bones here in the city,” Murren said. “A job that we have is to help knit that all together. We don’t want to build a box. We want to build an urban environment.”
In the audience was Jasmine Brewer, an education activist with the Access Springfield Promise Program. She wants to know how MGM’s employees and revenue might help the city’s young people in their schooling.
“Right now we’re at a 54 percent dropout rate,” Brewer explained. “So we’re hoping with the new initiative of the casinos that it will bring more workforce development and allow more opportunities for young people to continue their education and then go on to possibly pursue different careers around the casino.”
At one corner of the proposed site, adjacent to the MassMutual Center, is the old MassMutual headquarters. It’s a century old and built of limestone. MGM says it wants to incorporate it into the casino development’s design. In fact, they say, the building will serve as an entrance to their 25-story hotel.
And on the opposite corner: several buildings damaged in last year’s tornado, including an old armory that was also the South End Community Center. In between, a huge parking lot, a Christian men’s rescue mission, a café, pub, a shoe and clothing store, and several abandoned storefronts.
Milling around shopping in one of the stores was 24-year-old Michael Brawner of Springfield, who said the downtown has problems.
“Just gun violence, operating under the influence, fights — a lot of fights lately,” Brawner said.
But he, too, is on the fence about a casino.
“I mean whatever’s going down right here, whatever problems, they’re not gonna go anywhere. They’re just gonna be another location,” Brawner speculated. “But maybe with them being a major company they can control a lot instead of these different bars and these different avenues down here. They’re not working together. So maybe one effort will make it better. I don’t know.”
MGM’s current Springfield competitor, Ameristar, says its preliminary plan is better for the city and visitors from all over the region. Senior Vice President Troy Stremming points out the company has already purchased a site in East Springfield, with plans for more gaming space.
“It’s my understanding that they have about 10 acres, and that’s quite a contrast to the 41 acres that we have, which really gives us the ability to have a blank canvas that we can create a very nice resort casino,” Stremming said.
MGM has control of several properties in its proposed development area, options to buy several others and plans to bid on the remaining ones up for sale.
Meanwhile, Red Rose’s Caputo is just trying to serve up the best hospitality he can as he tries to sort out where he stands.
“They’ve talked about involving us in their plan,” Caputo said, referring to MGM Resorts executives. “But there’s also restaurants coming down. Yes, more foot traffic, but more restaurants. Does that cancel each other out? I’m not sure.”
In the end, competition will cancel out all but one casino for western Massachusetts. The ultimate decision on a license rests with the state gaming commission.