Each Day Is Different for MGM Springfield General Counsel Seth Stratton
“I don’t know the answer, and that’s the exciting part of this job,” said Stratton, who was recently named vice president and general counsel for MGM Springfield, making him only the company’s second full-time hire, after President Michael Mathis.
“This is a unique development,” Stratton said of the $800 million resort casino expected to open in 2017. “Western Massachusetts has never seen this type of development, and the statute [legalizing casinos] poses legal questions that haven’t been addressed yet in Massachusetts. My job description is to oversee legal affairs and government relations. But what that means day to day is the exciting part.”
Technically, Stratton’s job is overseeing legal affairs and government relations for MGM Springfield — an extension of work he had been performing with the company while working at Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law in East Longmeadow. But as the casino project moves forward, his job will shift often.
“Last week, we were making sure legal notices go out to the tenants of the buildings that comprise the project parcel. They’ll be vacating a lot of those buildings, and we need to make sure we prepare the legal notices they need in a way that’s informative but complies with the law,” he explained.
“We were also in Boston last week, in front of the Gaming Commission, dealing with a few issues that were required under statute — implementing some monitoring of electronic gaming and an affirmative diversity plan for hiring; MGM is committed to that,” he continued.
“That was last week. And I think a good part of the development period will be like that. It’s going to be an ongoing development project, and there are going to be a whole lot of legal issues — in construction, as we start to roll out our hiring, and making sure we’re complying with gaming statutes and regulations. As things start to normalize, we’ll have a better sense of what the average day for the general counsel of MGM Springfield is like.”
Before being hired away from Fitzgerald, Stratton worked with MGM Springfield for almost three years, negotiating agreements with the city of Springfield and surrounding communities as well as advising on permitting and real-estate acquisitions, all the while becoming a familiar face at the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, presenting on legal issues relevant to the casino project.
Now that role has expanded, and Stratton understands the complexity of navigating a project that will eventually employ some 3,000 people in an industry making its debut in the Commonwealth.
“We’re working with outside counsel in Las Vegas, making sure that an enterprise this size is complying with all the laws and regulations,” he told BusinessWest. “A lot of it is working with the Gaming Commission on regulatory and statutory compliance to gaming laws and regulations, as well as local compliance issues. We have an agreement with the city of Springfield, they did a great job in the interests of the city, and they’re very clear they will hold our feet to the fire on all these issues.”
In other words, bring on the myriad challenges.
“That’s the reason I jumped at the opportunity to take this job,” he said. “It’s really a cool opportunity where the job description changes on a weekly basis based on what’s going on at the moment.”
Stratton is, for lack of a better term, a Springfield guy, through and through.
“I was born and raised in East Forest Park,” he said. “My parents were both born and raised in Springfield. My wife and both her parents were born and raised in Springfield. I went to Cathedral.”However, armed with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Colgate University and a master’s in public affairs from UMass Boston, he couldn’t find a suitable job in Springfield, so he went to work for state Sen. Brian Lees at the State House. After earning his law degree from Suffolk University Law School, he took a job as a litigation associate at Brown Rudnick in Boston.
When his first child was born, however, he and his wife decided they wanted to live near their families in Western Mass., so they moved back to Longmeadow.
“There was nothing really comparable to what I’d been doing in Springfield, so I took a job with a similar firm in Hartford,” he said, referring to his counsel position in the Financial Institutions Litigation Group at Bingham McCutchen in Hartford. “But I felt disconnected form the community I lived in; I didn’t feel connected to the business community here.”
That’s when an opportunity opened up at Fitzgerald, where Stratton took on a diverse litigation and dispute-resolution practice focusing on a wide range of corporate, commercial, and personal disputes. “They were looking for a litigator, and I knew of their reputation, so I went to work there. That way, I worked five minutes from where I live, and I could be involved in the legal community in Western Mass.”
Within a month after taking the job, the casino legislation passed, and MGM eventually came poking around Springfield, and hired Fitzgerald to handle legal and governmental matters.
“We were essentially the local counsel for MGM in connection with local matters,” Stratton said. “About two years ago, I really started getting busier and busier; there was a lot going on, and I really became enmeshed in the project. I worked directly with Mike Mathis. We have similar backgrounds. He’s a lawyer by training, a former litigator, so we worked very well together. And I started getting more involved in these issues.”
One of his first roles involved negotiations of the host-community agreement with Springfield and surrounding-community agreements with neighboring cities and towns.
“That was a lengthy process. Under statute, we had to reach out to the surrounding communities and negotiate with them, and that involved knowing who the players were and knowing what the communities are all about. That’s where my local experience, being local and involved in local politics, helped me to negotiate and handle arbitrations in front of the Gaming Commission.”
He worked extensively on the West Springfield and Longmeadow deals, and though both towns prevailed in arbitration, “we were satisfied with the results, which were consistent with the statute’s intent. We eventually ended up with surrounding-community agreements with all the communities abutting Springfield.”
As he became more involved with MGM through Fitzgerald, he worked on regulatory aspects and compliance issues with the Gaming Commission, and on the host-community agreement with Springfield.
“I worked pretty closely with the city solicitor on a number of items,” Stratton said. “I think it was helpful that folks I was dealing with in the city, and in the surrounding communities, knew I’m from the city, I have local roots, and I think that gave me credibility in these discussions that an outsider with a similar legal background may not have had. And MGM recognized that as a benefit.”
Added Mathis, “from day one as one of our local counsel, Seth has been a steady sounding board for the entire MGM Springfield team. We feel fortunate that he is not only a respected lawyer, but also cares deeply about the future of this area and the city of Springfield. His advice is always informed by his concern for local issues.”
Stratton praised Mathis equally effusively. “He’s a dynamic, young leader in this industry — very bright, very energetic, very demanding. Working with him over the last couple years has been very exciting. I truly have been impressed with the quality of professionalism and work ethic from all the individuals I’ve dealt with at MGM. To become a part of that culture is something I really appreciate.”
Bringing Springfield Back
Stratton also has a vision for his home city’s future, with MGM Springfield at the center of the revival.
“It sounds a little colloquial, but I grew up off Sumner Avenue and Allen Street, and I remember Christmas Eve, my father doing last-minute shopping at Baystate West. I remember hopping on the PVTA bus from Sumner Avenue to downtown and going to Johnson’s Bookstore,” he recalled.
“I love the idea that there could be more of those opportunities for people hoping to go to entertainment venues in downtown Springfield. For people living in these neighborhoods to go to MGM Springfield, not only to the casino but for some of the retail and restaurants, that would be exciting to me.”
While the city’s downtown has generated momentum lately with a growing number of businesses and colleges setting up shop, Stratton didn’t sense much excitement in the area around the time the gaming legislation was passed.
“I didn’t have the impression things were happening,” he said. “But right away, I realized this project had the opportunity to be the spark Springfield needed. Springfield does have its challenges. I’m not under the impression that MGM Springfield will be the hero, but I definitely think it has a catalyst ability, to be the spark that gets people excited about reinvesting in downtown.
“The idea that my wife and I can hop in the car and go to dinner and a show and then be home in five minutes, that’s truly exciting to us as a family,” he continued. “There are so few of those opportunities. When we do have time to go out to dinner, we’ll drive to Northampton, but it’s never been on our radar to go to Springfield. That’s going to change, and that’s really exciting for us.”
For now, though, Stratton continues to press his legal expertise and local knowledge to help bring that vision to reality. He expects his role to continue expanding, encompassing federal issues as well as state-level regulations, as groundbreaking, construction, and hiring and training strategies all move forward.
“It all changes day to day,” he said. “And that just makes the job more interesting.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]