Sections The Casino Era

Piece of the Pie

Region’s Tradespeople Anticipate Casino Construction Opportunities

Jason Garand

Jason Garand says MGM has a track record of using local labor for its projects, and he expects Springfield to be no exception.

With a membership of 950 carpenters who work in Western Mass., the New England Regional Council of Carpenters Local 108, has, in many ways, its finger on the pulse of the region, said Jason Garand, business manager.

“We do almost all the big work — I would say 99% of the biggest work,” he told BusinessWest. “And this one is going to be the biggest of all.”

He refers, of course, to a plan by MGM Resorts International to develop an $800 million casino in Springfield’s South End, which is awaiting final approval by the Mass. Gaming Commission — and which, if it moves forward, promises to put thousands of the area’s construction tradespeople to work.

“MGM has been, from the beginning, very forthright and open about how they plan to build this,” Garand said. “They have a track record of construction in other states, and in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, where they are committed to all the right things. And not only are they committed, but they’ve done so in writing, with the host-community agreement.”

That agreement, hammered out with Springfield municipal leaders last year, calls for the construction phase of the casino project to incorporate mostly local labor, potentially to the tune of 2,000 construction jobs, followed by 3,000 permanent jobs in the casino once it opens.

“Springfield —  and Holyoke, too —  have higher unemployment than other cities in the state,” Garand said, “so we want to create those jobs right here.”

Jeffrey Ciuffreda, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, praised the way MGM has reached out to the area’s unions, and suggested the project might incorporate a handful of large contractors from the eastern part of the state, but will source most of the subcontracted work locally.

The end result will be an uncommon style of casino, one that will face outward onto the streets of the South End, allowing tourists to enjoy its shops and restaurants without having to navigate through the gaming area or hotel. This design will encourage local business growth (see story, page 19), and link visitors to other Springfield attractions, including the MassMutual Center, Springfield Museums, and Symphony Hall.

“Their model is really unique,” Garand said. “And, if this model works, Springfield will be the first of many projects in the country with this new casino style. For example, they’re not building a convention center of their own; they’re tying it into the MassMutual Center.”

From the start, he said, local labor leaders, contractors, and tradespeople hope that community outreach begins with the construction phase. So far, they like what they’re hearing.

From the Ground Up

The level of expectation varies, however, between individual businesses and niches. For instance, landscape-architecture opportunities might be limited in an urban casino, said Stephen Roberts, president of Stephen A. Roberts Landscape Architecture & Construction in Springfield.

“There might be some exterior construction in regard to pavers and maybe water features, but I don’t see there being a lot of green space available to create pocket parks,” he said. “From the plans I’ve seen, there’s not a whole lot of landscaping — it’s mostly a kind of urban cityscape.”

He said landscape architects, perhaps more than any construction trade, are hurt by the Springfield project’s status as the last proposal standing for the Western Mass. license.

“If there were a casino like the one proposed in Palmer, on a large, open area of land, you’d see better opportunities for landscape architects, for planning, different plantings, and landscape features,” he added. “In Springfield, space is tight; the buildings will take up 90% of the site. I don’t see there being some huge, open landscaping there. I don’t see this as a huge opportunity, but I might be wrong.”

Still, opportunities abound across the construction trades when one considers the sheer scope of the MGM development.

“From the perspective of local contractors, it’s a little problematic,” Garand said. “Even large companies like O’Connell and Fontaine could never do a single project at $400 million, never mind $800 million. This is a monster.”

He said what Baystate Medical Center did recently, with its $250 million ‘Hospital of the Future’ expansion, is a good example for MGM to follow. Even though the main contractor for the 640,000-square-foot project was from the Boston area, Baystate crafted a project labor agreement with local unions to ensure that much of the work would be performed by local talent.

As a result, of some 300 workers on site daily at the project, which wrapped up two years ago, about 70% of them were based in Springfield or the Pioneer Valley. “We’ve been able to keep these jobs,” Stanley Hunter, Baystate’s project executive at the time, told BusinessWest back then. “Especially in these times, we know there’s an interest in keeping work local in such an important project for the area.”

That certainly hasn’t changed with the MGM development.

“There is a fear out there, because contractors here are smaller, that they would come in with basically big contractors from Boston or Eastern Mass., set up, then leave, without much in value locally,” Garand said. “MGM has said, ‘absolutely not; we are going to make sure we get as many contractors from the 413 area code as possible. We are maybe going to chop up some of the contracts, break them up so it’s feasible.’”

That means that, while no company is going to take on an entire $800 million project, a $5 million hotel wing or $50 million in electrical or plumbing work are big prizes in themselves, and there should be plenty of such opportunity to go around.

Holding Pattern

Not only is MGM committing to some 2,000 construction jobs, it will strive to ensure that 35% of those go to Springfield residents, and that no more than 10% of the workforce is made up of people who live outside the Greater Springfield area. In addition, it has set goals of hiring 15.3% minorities, 6.9% women, and 8% veterans on the construction phase.

These goals have produced anticipation in the local construction industry, but the project has also hindered companies in a significant way — by putting many Springfield landlords in a holding pattern.

“So far it’s hurt us,” said Peter Allum, president of McCormick-Allum Co., a Springfield-based HVAC firm. “There are projects that haven’t happened because of what might happen.”

That’s because many downtown Springfield property owners are in a kind of holding pattern, waiting for the casino to become official before making any moves involving their buildings.

“In several cases, landlords have not renovated their buildings because they’re taking a wait-and-see attitude,” said Allum, who recently saw two potential projects downtown pushed to the back burner. “One is a four-story building that needs a new heating system. Depending on the casino outcome, [the owner] might move out. Whether he renovates the space or moves out depends on what happens.”

Still, Garand believes the project is an overall benefit to the region, and his union has already begun to partner with MGM on job fairs and is promoting its apprenticeship program for teens at area vocational schools, so they can find work opportunities right after graduation.

“When Baystate did its $250 million expansion, they had a firm commitment to use a certain percentage of local labor, and they exceeded that number by almost 50%,” Ciuffreda said. “It’s clear from the finished project that the quality of local workmanship is high. I think MGM knows that was the last big building project done in the area, and my sense is, they’re committed to local labor.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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