Casino Can’t Be Only Revitalization Plan

The Boston Globe was out visiting Springfield again recently. The paper does that on a fairly regular basis, usually to tell the rest of New England just how downtrodden the city is.
On this occasion, the paper chose to focus on a quiet Thursday night downtown — make that very quiet. “At 8:45 p.m., there was no traffic. No people or voices, either. Not a sound at all a block from City Hall, near the hulking MassMutual Center arena,” the story began. “As if on cue, a strip of plastic bubble wrap rolled down the empty street in the breeze, an urban tumbleweed. Office windows in the stately buildings along Main Street were dark, block upon block. A single sedan hogged the entire first level of the enormous Civic Center garage.”
Urban tumbleweed? OK, the writer needed such hyberbole if he was going to juxtapose what he perceives as the present — he would have seen a different picture on many nights, but that’s another story — with what may happen in the future if MGM builds its planned $800 million casino in the South End.
“It is difficult to overstate how much Springfield’s political leaders are counting on MGM to be the ‘economic engine’ that will drive the rebirth of a city tormented by an annual unemployment rate above 10% for the past five years,” the writer went on, before quickly, and correctly, pointing out the dismal track record of urban casinos when it comes to carrying out that assignment.
Perhaps the Globe writer is accurate in what he says, but we believe he might be overstating things a little. Let’s just say we hope he is.
Indeed, we’ve never considered this casino to be something that will drive Springfield’s rebirth. Rather, we think, and we hope, that it will be a big part of a rebirth that has proven quite elusive for this community.
And this is an important distinction moving forward. The casino isn’t — or shouldn’t be — the revitalization plan. But it can be a huge component in that plan.
Here’s what the casino will do:
• It will bring 2,500 to 3,000 jobs to a city that desperately needs them, which is the top line of any discussion concerning this proposal;
• It will redevelop several blocks of unused or underutilized property in the South End, much of it damaged by the 2011 tornado, for which there are few viable alternatives;
• It will bring several million people to Springfield each year. What happens after they get here and after they’re done gambling is a matter of debate, but it will at least bring people to the city;
• It will support a number of local businesses by buying from them or making them part of the casino complex;
• It will make the city a more attractive site for meetings and conventions; and
• It will, in many respects, make Springfield relevant again.
Here’s what the casino won’t do: it won’t magically transform Springfield into a bustling urban center overnight — or even in 10 or 15 years. That hasn’t happened in cities where casinos have been placed, and it won’t happen here, either.
For Springfield to enjoy a real rebirth and reduce those urban tumbleweeds, many other things have to happen besides the casino. For starters, market-rate housing must be developed downtown to attract young professionals and empty-nesters — constituencies with disposable income — to the city. But you can’t just build such housing and hope people will come (Hartford did that, and it didn’t work); you have to give people reasons to come, such as attractive jobs, nightlife, low crime rates, and a cultural community.
For a true rebirth, Springfield must also go about turning the lights back on in those office buildings the Globe mentioned, and it must create more avenues to a better life for the many people living at, or sometimes well below, the poverty line.
Springfield has become the right city at the right time when it comes to the casino era in Massachusetts. It was the only community in this region to vote ‘yes’ on a plan, and it is on the doorstep of one of the most intriguing chapters in its long history.
A casino won’t create a turnaround. But it can be a part of that process.

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