Moving Beyond the Pretty Pictures

MGM Resorts International staged a lavish press event at the MassMutual Center last week to announce its plans to build a casino and entertainment complex in Springfield’s South End. There was an overflow crowd, music, high-tech imagery, performers from Cirque du Soleil, and a full complement of media.

Springfield hadn’t seen anything quite like it before, but it will see something like it again, and probably very soon. Indeed, with the MGM event, the casino era in Western Mass. entered a new and intriguing phase. Let’s call it the ‘pretty pictures stage.’

Actually, they’re architect’s renderings, and there were a few on display in the packets being handed out at the MassMutual Center. They showed a South End teeming with people, lights, and vibrancy, a stark contrast to what exists now. Older buildings and properties damaged by last year’s tornado had been replaced by storefronts, restaurants, and attractive buildings for market-rate housing.

And along with the pictures came promises, in this case to connect the casino complex with downtown entertainment venues, such as the MassMutual Center, via a pedestrian walkway, thus eliminating one of the major complaints about casinos — that they keep people inside their walls and don’t spread the wealth. There were also pledges to incorporate existing downtown buildings, such as the former MassMutual headquarters at the corner of State and Main streets, and existing businesses, such as the Red Rose pizzeria, into the MGM complex.

There will be more of these press events, renderings, and promises in the weeks and months to come. There are casino plans unfolding for the North End of Springfield, involving the Republican building and other parcels, as well as the old Westinghouse complex in East Springfield, and perhaps another for a site in the middle of the central business district.

The trouble with these images, however, is that they tend to blind people, create expectations, and, in many ways, distract them from any other form of economic development and urban revitalization.

Indeed, with the start of the pretty pictures stage, it is quite evident that Springfield, and this region as a whole, needs some form of resolution to the question of where the casino is going to go — and the sooner the better. That’s because nothing is going to get done until that $64,000 question is answered.

Look at what has happened in Palmer. Mohegan Sun started putting out pretty pictures of what a casino on the hill just off the turnpike exit would look like, and the town has been in what amounts to a trance since. Granted, there is nothing approaching a Plan B for job creation and overall economic development in that community, but nothing else will even be considered until the casino matter is resolved.

In Springfield, we’re starting to see signs of the same thing. The phrase ‘tornado reconstruction’ seems old and passé. The matter of rebuilding the battered South End is on the back burner, and it will stay there until the winner of the Springfield casino sweepstakes is announced.

The same is true for other areas of the city, including the North End and the center of downtown. Almost everything now seems to hinge on where the casino will go — if Springfield lands one at all — and what the plan entails.

So it is incumbent upon those who will be making the decisions locally and then on a statewide basis to be diligent, thoughtful — this could be, after all, the biggest development in Springfield since the building of the Armory more than 200 years ago — but also expeditious.

There are currently about as many casino plans for Springfield as there are for the rest of the state combined, and the longer we have to look at the pretty pictures, consider the possibilities, and speculate, the longer it will be before we can move this city forward.

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