Along for the Ride
As the final, final countdown begins for MGM Springfield, the opening of the nearly $1 billion project offers a different level of poignancy for a small group of individuals. They are known as first-generation, or first-gen employees. In many cases, they were the boots on the ground, stuffing envelopes and staging letter-writing parties when this was only a concept, not even an architect’s rendering. Today, they’re no longer volunteers; in fact, they’re already casino-industry veterans who have found not only a job but a career.
Anita Bird remembers knocking on the door not knowing who or what might lie on the other side.
She had left Temple University in Philadelphia that fall of 2012, and come home to Springfield looking for … well, she wasn’t exactly sure what. A “restart” was how she phrased it for BusinessWest. She had heard that MGM was looking at Springfield as the possible site for one of the Commonwealth’s first resort casinos and also that the company had opened a small office at 1441 Main St.
“I was trying to figure out what I was going to do,” she recalled, “and I’d heard that MGM was here, and I wanted some more information, mainly because I was surprised and confused and was just looking to see what all this was about.”
So she knocked on the door.
Fast-forwarding considerably, she was met by Brian Bass, manager of the company’s casino-referendum efforts, who would offer her an opportunity to volunteer for the entertainment giant as it sought to clear what would be merely the first of many hurdles it would face to gain a casino license.
That stint as a volunteer would eventually lead to a job and what has all the makings of a career in the casino business. Her business card now declares that she is HR coordinator for MGM Springfield, handling a wide array of responsibilities, from events to make people aware of career opportunities at the casino to birthday parties for those already on the payroll.
What it will read several years, or even several months, from now, she doesn’t know.
“You get a glimpse of every piece, a little of everyone’s world,” she said of her time at MGM to date and her exposure to a wide array of career paths. “I’m open to the many opportunities that MGM has; we have so many great properties and great opportunities.”
Bird is what’s known within the company as a ‘first-generation’ employee of MGM Springfield, which means, in most cases, that she’s been here from the very start, long before the very first architect’s renderings of the $950 million casino now nearing completion in the South End were drawn. Back before Springfield voters had even approved a referendum that would allow a company to build a casino within the city’s borders. Back before anyone around here had ever heard of Mike Mathis or Bill Hornbuckle.
There are several of these first-gen employees, many of whom, like Bird, started as volunteers. Sometimes they knocked on that office door, other times they joined a line at the MGM table at a job fair.
After volunteering, they then earned jobs with a wide array of titles, and now are in what appears to be the early stage of a career in the gaming industry. Many of them tell stories of ‘letter-writing parties’ from the days leading up to the city’s referendum vote and then, a year later, a statewide ballot initiative to undo the Legislature’s approval of casino gambling. And of long days and nights working toward something that was then only a concept. And of doing ‘anything and everything that needed to be done,’ a phrase many of them used.
“We were the feet on the ground — this little army of recent college graduates just knocking on doors, making phone calls, having house parties and letter-writing parties; if there was a way to get the word out, we were going to do it,” said Amanda Gagnon, who, after her time volunteering, wound up serving on the community relations staff, then as exective assistant to both Mathis, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, and Alex Dixon, the general manager, and now, as project coordinator on the operations side.
Some have seen their journey take them to Las Vegas for management training or to MGM’s National Harbor casino in Maryland, which opened roughly 18 months ago. But they are all in Springfield, or back in Springfield, as the case may be.
And now that it’s reality and just a few months from opening its doors, the casino has become for them not only a place of employment, but a source of pride, something they’ve helped bring to fruition, something that, for those who grew up in and around Springfield, has changed their outlook on the city and its future.
“Back when I was going to college at Western New England, I would never have patronized any of the outlets down here,” said Thuy Nguyen, a first-gen employee now working in HR. “I wouldn’t even think to set foot downtown because you always thought it was too dangerous to be down there. Fast-forward five years, and I’m downtown almost every week — outside of work. It’s a nice, very refreshing change.”
For this issue, and as the opening date for the casino draws ever closer, BusinessWest turns the spotlight on an intriguing group of MGM team members — those first-generation employees who knocked on the door of opportunity, sometimes quite literally, and found a fulfilling career on the other side.
Rolling the Dice
Gagnon can laugh about it now, but, for the most part, she still doesn’t. That’s because, on many levels, it remains a sore subject.
In the run-up to Springfield’s referendum vote on casino gambling in the fall of 2013, Gagnon, an East Longmeadow native, was essentially assigned Ward 6, the Forest Park area. As things turned out, that was the only ward to vote against the casino measure.
“I had a tough community, and I wore that scarlet letter for a while, but they didn’t hold it against me, obviously,” said Gagnon with a laugh. She took those numbers hard, but quickly focused on the much bigger picture — all the work that still lay ahead, including another campaign — the ballot initiative (which was defeated by a wide margin) — and she’s embraced all of it.
Gagnon’s story, like that of all of the first-generation employees, has its unique elements and fate-filled moments; there’s even what is now a husband-and-wife team that went to Las Vegas together for management training and now work on different floors of MGM’s headquarters at 95 State St. (we’ll meet them in a bit).
But there are many common threads as well. Most weren’t looking for a job with MGM per se when they started, just a job, or a restart, like the one Bird described.
Gagnon was certainly looking for one of those after returning from New York — and a short stint on Broadway in company management and casting — as so many do who venture to the Big Apple, with big dreams mostly unfulfilled.
“I was working in entertainment because that’s my strongest passion,” she said. “But New York is expensive, and I came back with my tail between my legs, ready to reassess what my future should be. I felt defeated — but I heard that MGM was interested in coming to the area.”
But at first, the East Longmeadow native disregarded those reports as illogical, based largely on the city’s troubles at the time and her own perceptions of the community. “I said, ‘I know this area, and MGM and Springfield weren’t two words that went together at the time.’”
But she was pushed and prodded by family members to investigate the rumors and, more specifically, show up at a career showcase at the MassMutual Center and report back in detail on what transpired.
She did show up, and she did report back — that MGM had no job openings, per se, but it was looking for interns to help with the campaign.
She interned for about a month and then was brought on full-time to work on the referendum campaign — work that is far removed from the lights of Broadway and also from what most people think about when they sign on to work for MGM Resorts.
As noted, these first-gen employees weren’t working for a casino, but for a company with aspirations for building a casino in the City of Homes. In the late spring of 2018, it might be hard for some to remember how all this started — with a grassroots effort to garner support for casino gambling in the city.
Those who were there certainly can’t forget; the images, and memories, are embedded in their minds.
“By October, when I arrived, MGM was just sort of putting the feelers out,” said Bird, who would eventually be appointed manager of that office bearing the door she knocked on, the first of many steps up the ladder. “That’s when we sent out all those mailers asking people what their feelings were on casino gambling and what they thought about a casino here; that’s where we started, with those mailers, and eventually there were house parties, letter-writing efforts, and other things to feel out where the support was and what people thought about the project.
“We would do fireside chats, we would go to hockey games and sign people up, we’d do giveaways — anything we could to get to talk to people,” she went on, adding that the goals back then were to build support but also a large army of people to carry on the fight.
Joining the Army
And the recruitment process for that army was quite involved, and many would join by what could only be called the indirect route. Nguyen enlisted by way of a career fair in 2013 staged not by her school, Western New England University, but UMass Amherst.
“I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, and UMass has, historically, one of the largest career fairs in the area,” she recalled. “I was searching on their database to see what companies were going to be represented, and almost fell off my chair when I saw ‘MGM Resorts’ on the list.
“I swear that, prior to that, I had never skipped school,” she went on. “But I skipped on that day, took a chance, stood in line for what felt like hours, and once I got to the table and spoke to a representative, I found they were recruiting for their Las Vegas properties.”
That news left her feeling quite deflated — she remembers almost being in tears as she left the career fair — but the picture changed quickly and dramatically when Bass, who was forwarded her résumé by MGM colleagues at the career fair, gave her a call, inquiring about whether she’d like to join the campaign as an intern.
“He hired me on the spot, and it’s history from there,” she told BusinessWest before offering, when prodded, a much slower version of the story.
That account featured a dramatic shift in scenery as Thuy ventured off to Las Vegas and the MGM Grand, where she took part in the management-associate program, a stint that lasted three years.
For someone who grew up in Springfield and then moved to rural Maine, it was quite a culture shock — “life-changing,” as she called it.
But her goal was always to come back to Springfield and open the MGM property here, and late last year, she did. Her business card declares that she is an HR business partner, handling a wide array of responsibilities, from internal investigations to counseling to workers’ comp claims — “all the fun stuff” — for a workforce now numbering more than 200 and on its way to 3,000.
Among those 200 are Jennifer and Derek Russell. They have different jobs — she’s the manager of Talent and Acquisition, and he’s manager of Financial Planning & Analysis — and they work on different floors, but they took the same basic route here.
The same one Nguyen did.
Indeed, Jennifer, a graduate of the Isenberg School of Management at UMass, was at that very same career fair, also looking for a summer internship. She was thinking about Boston or Hartford as a landing spot, but was mostly focused on just getting some experience and making a little money.
“I talked to 18 companies, and saw this really long line at this last booth that turned out to be MGM,” she recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘this is a hospitality company; I don’t know much about it, but it seems really popular right now.
“I ended up waiting in line for a good 15 minutes just to talk with one person,” she went on. “I was asking if they had any HR positions or project-management roles.”
The person she spoke with was recruiting for Las Vegas, and she handed her over to the vice president of MGM Grand, who took one of Russell’s homemade business cards and dialed the number on it several days later, asking specifically if Russell would be interested in coming out to Las Vegas.
She was, went out for an initial 10 weeks, and “fell in love with all of it,” in her recollection.
She came back home to East Longmeadow and to Derek, whom she had started dating a few months earlier, and essentially talked him into going back out to Vegas with her.
As he recalls, it wasn’t exactly a hard sell.
“I spent the better part of a year in Boston doing something I probably wasn’t enjoying, and was looking for something different,” he said. “Jen decided she wanted to move to Vegas to take part in this management-associate program and wanted me to go with her.
“I said, ‘why not?’ — I wasn’t doing anything all that great for work,” he went on, adding that he applied for the MGM program, also known as MAP, and was accepted. “I told my boss at the time that I was moving to Vegas; he said, ‘you’re young … that’s probably not the craziest thing you’ll ever do.’ And I remember telling him, ‘I’m pretty sure moving to Vegas is one of the greatest things I’ll ever do.’”
Moving the story along, they spent a year in the MAP program, getting a holistic view of how a casino company like MGM operates, choosing a career path — again, his in finance and hers in talent acquisition — and then getting on with those careers.
While doing so, they were ever mindful of a pledge they made to each other that they would eventually return to Massachusetts and the families they left behind. They would do that, but first made a stop at National Harbor to be part of the team that opened that casino.
Today, like many of the other first-gen employees, their travels have taken them well beyond Greater Springfield, but they are happy to be here now at this pivotal moment in the city’s history.
It’s a moment they are part of on many levels. Indeed, the Russells not only work downtown, they live there, literally a few hundred yards from the front door of the casino’s hotel, in Stockbridge Court.
“It’s exciting to see the city come to life and be restored after so long,” said Derek. “The city is changing, and it’s great to be part of all that’s happening here.”
Others shared that sentiment and said they’re proud that the project they’ve been involved with for so much of their young lives is helping to transform the region they knew and make the memories — and sentiments — they had seem very distant.
“The Springfield we see now isn’t the same Springfield I left when I went to New York,” said Gagnon. “There’s new restaurants on Worthington Street, new events in Court Square. Springfield isn’t just a city people drive through anymore; we’ve become a place to stop, not just somewhere on the way.
“MGM is Springfield’s lifeline,” she told BusinessWest. “And I’m a true believer that, without MGM, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are today.”
In the Beginning…
All those we spoke with say they have them. Lots of them.
They flash back to selected moments in time that, for obvious reasons, have become indelible — because of the work being done, the time of day, the fatigue they were feeling, the emotions they were expressing, or, very often, the people they were working beside.
Many of those people are now on a different floor or, in some cases, just a few cubicles away. But they’re still ‘beside’ them, wearing MGM nametags and bearing business cards with the company’s logo. And that makes the flashbacks come more easily.
“I can think back on those nights when it was 1 o’clock in the morning and we were counting how many phone calls we had made,” recalled Gagnon with a heavy sigh. “That’s just one of many memories I have — and will always have. And every second of that is worth it to be able to be here today.”
With that, she certainly spoke for all of the first-gen employees.
George O’Brien can be reached at email@example.com