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With confetti and fanfare, MGM officially broke ground Tuesday on an $800 million casino in western Massachusetts that represents the largest economic development project the region has seen in generations.
Hundreds attended the ceremony held on a cold but sunny day in front of an old school the casino plans to raze to make way for a parking lot.
The groundbreaking was largely symbolic: Casino officials say there's more to be done before construction can start in earnest.
But the event marks a significant development in New England's ever-escalating casino race.
MGM seeks to become Massachusetts' first resort casino as rivals in Connecticut and the Boston area are also trying to open casinos.
"We're No. 1 one in Vegas, and we'll be No. 1 in New England, regardless of what Connecticut does," CEO Jim Murren declared.
Here's what you need to know about the project, which officials hope to open in 2017:
MGM's casino is being developed on 14.5 acres in the downtown and South End neighborhoods, an area still recovering from a devastating 2011 tornado.
The casino will have 3,000 slot machines, 75 gambling tables and a 250-room hotel. It will also include shops, restaurants, meeting and office space and residential apartments.
The project has been billed as a unique, urban-centered casino that will restore or reuse all or parts of a number of historic buildings, including a castle-like armory.
It will also preserve Main Street's traditional storefront row and offer new downtown amenities like a public plaza, ice skating rink, cinema and bowling alley.
The coming of the MGM casino has been hailed by city and business leaders as a rare chance to revive a struggling, former industrial city.
It is expected to create at least 2,000 temporary construction jobs and about 3,000 permanent casino jobs. The company has also agreed to pay Springfield at least $17.6 million annually after the casino opens its doors.
"This is going to allow our young folks to stay in Springfield," said Kim Rivera, a resident who attended the groundbreaking. "We won't lose our families because they'll be able to find good jobs here."
Connecticut lawmakers eyeing the MGM project with concern are weighing legislation to allow up to three new casinos in their state.
One could be located between Hartford and Springfield, which are about a half-hour drive apart, and be jointly operated by Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun.
"Today, competition on our borders is a reality," leaders of the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes that operate the two Connecticut casinos said in reaction to the groundbreaking.
MGM officials dismissed the potential rival facility, which could offer up to 1,800 slot machines and some table games and restaurants.
"That's not entertainment. It might raise some revenue but it doesn't create many jobs," said Murren, MGM's CEO. "I think the people of Massachusetts, at least, will vastly prefer to go to a brand-new luxury resort than a box of slots on the Connecticut border."
MGM also faces competition within Massachusetts.
Wynn Resorts is developing a $1.7 billion casino in the Boston suburb of Everett that it also is hoping to open in 2017.
That project still needs to secure state approval for an environmental cleanup plan for the former chemical plant site. Wynn is aiming to start that three-month cleanup this summer.
Meanwhile, a $225 million slot parlor is almost complete in Plainville, a town in southeastern Massachusetts near the Rhode Island border.
Penn National Gaming says that facility, at the Plainridge harness racing track, will open June 24. Unlike MGM or Wynn's resorts, though, it will not offer casino table games like blackjack and roulette or have an attached hotel.
Before construction can start in earnest, MGM needs the state historic commission to consent to plans to demolish some historic buildings on the site.
MGM Springfield President Michael Mathis said the company hopes to resolve the remaining issues with the commission in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, he says, there's plenty of work to be done on site, from environmental soil testing to cutting and capping utilities and asbestos abatement.
"It's really turning into a construction site," Mathis said Tuesday. "We're disappointed we're not quite complete with the historic issues. They're really concerned about preserving some of the great historic structures on the site. They had a laundry list of issues and, one by one, we've tackled them all with our design and we're a better project for it."
This article was originally published on March 24, 2015.
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