A Critical Moment for Springfield

EditorialPenWSJIt was Friday the 13th when the Gaming Commission came to Springfield to commit the state’s first casino license to a developer, in this case MGM.

Maybe they should have waited for another day.

The action taken by the commission was not unexpected, and in many ways it was a formality — MGM’s proposal to build a resort casino in Springfield’s South End has been the lone surviving bid for this region for more than seven months now — but this should have been a celebration.

Indeed, a city that has been struggling for decades, with everything from high unemployment to tornadoes, from a fiscal mess to a moribund central business district, was on the cusp of a new and exciting era. MGM was going to spend $800 million, create 3,000 permanent jobs, and transform several blocks in the tornado-ravaged South End.

But it wasn’t really a celebration, and for good reason. The referendum question regarding the fate of casino gambling in the Commonwealth has been hanging over this process like a wet blanket for months now, taking much of the festive spirit out of that gathering in Springfield.

And now, as most everyone knows, that referendum question will appear on the November ballot, following a unanimous vote of the state Supreme Judicial Court on June 24.

The next four months or so will be a wild, frantic period in the Commonwealth. This will be an intense, very expensive campaign that both sides are firmly committed to winning. They will hold nothing back — nor should they, because the stakes are incredibly high.

And it is not hyperbole to say that nowhere are they higher than in the City of Homes.

It was nearly two years ago when MGM first began wowing Springfield and raising hopes that something remarkable could happen here. At a high-tech, Vegas-style unveiling of the company’s plans for the South End at the MassMutual Center, politicians, business people, and residents looked at the flashy pictures and videos and started to dream — big.

Over the next several months, more companies had similar shows, and eventually people began to think that this could really happen here. And as the events of last fall unfolded, when West Springfield and Palmer voters said ‘no’ to proposals for their communities, some people here actually started to see a casino as a sure thing.

They should have known better.

There are no sure bets in casinos, and there are certainly no sure bets in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

In fact, it’s fair to say that momentum for casinos is eroding in this state. Recent polls, including one conducted by the Boston Globe, say otherwise, but it’s easy to get the sense that it’s all slipping away. The Gaming Commission has looked inept at times, many times, and there were enough votes like the shocker in Palmer to make people wonder how wide and deep the support for casinos really is in this state.

There are enough question marks about all this to prompt conversations about what will happen in Springfield if the anti-casino forces prevail in November.

These are not uplifting conversations, to be sure. Indeed, the prevailing opinion is that it will be a blow that Springfield will take a long time to recover from — if it ever does.

That’s because the city is now this close to seeing its landscape transformed, its downtown property climb in value, its stock rise, its name become known for something other than poverty and blight. But it’s equally close to seeing it all go by the boards, leaving, as we’ve said on many occasions and in many ways, no Plan B, C, or D for how to spark a turnaround.

As we said, many individuals and communities have a lot at stake in November’s vote. But none more than Springfield. This is a critical moment for the city.

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