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Opinion: The Region Needs MGM Open for Business

If you read between the lines when scanning or listening to the comments made by MGM Springfield officials in the run-up to the reopening of the facility today, it’s easy to see they have some real concerns about whether the restrictions they’ve been placed under will enable them to succeed.

“We’re excited to be here in this moment,” Chris Kelley, president and chief operating officer, told members of the press being given a tour of the pandemic-adjusted facilities last week. “We have significant occupancy constraints that the business will be opening with, but we approach this moment with gratitude for the opportunity to serve our guests and this community again.”

We’re not sure how much gratitude, but we are sure these occupancy constraints and other restrictions, put in place to keep guests and employees safe, are going to present stern challenges for the casino operators.

Roughly two-thirds of the slot machines will be disabled in the name of social distancing; many table games, including roulette, craps, and poker, will be shut down; capacity in the restaurants will also be limited, again in a nod to social distancing; the bars will be closed, and drinking will be limited to those playing the games that are still open; and large gatherings, such as concerts and shows, are still prohibited.

Add it all up, and then add in the cost of retrofitting the casino for play in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s fair to wonder whether opening is even a sound business decision given the high overhead at such facilities. That question remains to be answered.

What isn’t in doubt, though, is whether the city and the region need this facility open for business. To that question, we give a resounding ‘yes.’

Indeed, the tourism industry has been absolutely battered by the pandemic, perhaps harder than any other sector. Hotels, restaurants, bus companies, tourist attractions, and other businesses have been crippled by this. And the announcement that there will be no Big E this fall dealt that sector another huge blow.

We’re not sure how much reopening MGM Springfield will help those businesses — many visitors to the casino don’t make any other stops before or after they do their gambling — but any help would certainly be appreciated.

There’s also the support the casino provides to other businesses, especially its vendors. We’ve written much over the past few years about how important MGM’s business is to these vendors — from the sign makers to the dry cleaners — and the trickle-down, while limited in some respects, is very real.

Then there’s the psychological factor. Much of Main Street in Springfield was shut down by the pandemic, from shops to restaurants to businesses in the office towers. It’s starting to come back somewhat, with outdoor restaurants on Fort Street, Worthington Street, and around One Financial Plaza, and the office towers slowly (as in slowly) but surely coming back to life.

MGM is another, very important piece of the puzzle. With the casino again welcoming guests, Springfield, and the region, will seem all the more open for business after a dreadful spring.

We’re under no delusions here. Reopening MGM is not going to dramatically alter the fate of many of the businesses that have been decimated by the pandemic. But it might provide a spark — another spark, to be more precise — as the region tries to fight its way out of a disaster unlike anything it’s ever seen.

MGM’s managers are certainly not thrilled with the hand they’ve been dealt, as they say in this business, but perhaps they can do something with it — show they can operate safely while eventually building their capacity back up. In the meantime, the city and the region get another boost when they so badly need one.

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