It seems like longer ago — as in much longer — but it was almost exactly three years to this date that the casino era officially began in this region.
MGM Springfield was opened to considerable fanfare that hot August afternoon, and why not? The nearly $1 billion project, by far the largest private-sector development this region had ever seen, was more than five years in the making, and the buildup to that day was immense. There was a parade down Main Street. Some businesses actually adjusted their hours so employees could find parking spaces downtown amid what was expected to be a huge crush of visitors to the downtown area.
The expectations were sky-high for this gleaming resort casino, but almost immediately the numbers — in terms of visitors and revenues — started coming in lower than anyone hoped or anticipated.
And then … 18 months after that grand opening, COVID-19 changed the picture in a profound way.
So here we are, three years later. And in many respects, we’re right back where we were when the parade was making its way down Main Street. We can really only look to the future and project, because there simply isn’t enough data, enough evidence, to properly access MGM’s impact on the region.
Indeed, by now, we should have had a clear picture concerning whether this huge gamble — that’s what this is — has been worth it for Springfield and the region. Instead, because of COVID, we really don’t.
We do know some things. We know that MGM is not going to magically change the neighborhood around the casino and spur large amounts of additional development. That was the hope, but it won’t be the reality — unless things change in a dramatic fashion.
A CVS was built there, and, partly because of that CVS, a Wahlburgers restaurant has opened in that area as well. But, unfortunately, most of the office buildings across Main Street from the casino and in that area remain mostly vacant, with few signs of pending development. There is hope that the transformation of property in Court Square into market-rate housing — yes, MGM is a key partner in that project — will promote other developments of that type and also bring new service businesses to the area. But thus far, we certainly haven’t seen the scope of investments that had been anticipated.
We also know that gaming itself is not going to bring more vibrancy to the downtown area — or beyond, as some had hoped, with people maybe combining trips to the casino with visits to the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Big E, or other attractions. There are some visits to area restaurants, but what we’ve observed mostly is just what many feared — that those coming to gamble are single-minded in that purpose, and they’re getting back in their cars after their time on the casino floor is over and driving home.
The biggest impact from the casino has been its special events — concerts and shows — that bring people to this area, not just for that event, but for a night or even two. Such shows help pack area restaurants and bars and, when combined with other happenings, such as Thunderbirds games, create traffic (desirable traffic) and a buzz about Springfield.
The region was starting to see more of that buzz in the months before COVID hit, but, sadly, there has been very little of it since.
But there is hope that it can return — and soon.
Hope — and expectations — were all we had when the casino opened to all that fanfare three years ago. Now, we don’t really know what to expect, largely because of the pandemic and how it has changed the landscape and will continue to change it. But there is still that hope.
The hope that this $950 million investment will fulfill all that promise and become a real economic force in the region.
Right now, if we had to grade MGM Springfield and its impact three years after the doors swung open, that grade would have to be ‘incomplete.’