Home Posts tagged The Casino Era


As we bid farewell to 2017, we can say it’s been a very interesting year on many levels. Locally, it was a time to see a number of projects, some of which had been in the works for years or even decades, as was the case with Union Station, come to fruition.

It was a also a year to put down some foundations, as they say in the building trades, and also for creating the proverbial framework for future progress, as was the case with MGM Springfield, I-91 reconstruction, and efforts to add new layers to the region’s entrepreneurial infrastructure.

Nationally, of course, it was a year of unprecedented divisiveness and discord on virtually every front, with the lone bright spot being the manner in which women finally — and forcefully — came forward on the matter of sexual harassment and literally changed the landscape on that topic.

As for 2018 … well, aside from the very obvious, including an end to headlines detailing mass shootings, more saber rattling, or worse, with North Korea, and endless discord on Capitol Hill, here are some of things we’d like to see in 2018:

• More progress on the opioid epidemic. We say ‘more’ because we believe some has been achieved when it comes to this brutal epidemic with regard to prescription-control measures, the addition of more treatment beds, and, most importantly, the number of overdose deaths.

It’s fair to say that no family, no street, and no business has been left untouched by this scourge. The cost has been enormous, in every way calculable, especially the most precious — human lives. Much of the talk now concerns whether we have turned a corner on this epidemic and whether the picture is brightening. In 2108, we would hope to, at the very least, end any doubt that this is the case.

• A smooth, strong start for MGM Springfield. In about nine months, the waiting and the anticipation will be over, and the casino era will officially begin in Springfield and this region. What will it be like? No one really knows, because this is something completely new for this region.

Some have doubts about whether the casino can deliver everything that backers promise it can. And the best advice we can give — and we’ve given it before — is to consider the casino a piece to a bigger economic-development puzzle. Just a piece.

However, no one wants — or no one should want — this $950 million venture to fail. It needs to succeed for Springfield and for the region as a whole. It needs to bring people here; it needs to spur new business opportunities; it needs to create additional momentum for the City of Homes.

• Even more entrepreneurial energy. We say ‘even more’ because there is already quite a bit. More is needed, though, because good jobs are the lifeblood of every city, region, state, and country. They are a precious commodity, and, in case you hadn’t heard, they are being imperiled by rapidly advancing technology and a host of societal changes.

In short, we’re going to need places for people to work beyond the casino and Amazon distribution centers. And the best hope we have for more jobs is the creation of new ventures right here in Western Mass.

• Still more innovation. We say ‘still more’ because a region noted as being a hub of innovation continues to live up to that name. Most recent examples aren’t as visible as the ice skate, the parking meter, and the monkey wrench, but it’s happening, with everything from wearable medical devices to coatings that will clear fog from eyeglasses, to bringing your dog to work.

Wait, what was the last one? Yes, bringing your dog to work (see story, page 6). It’s not just a matter of convenience and companionship, although it’s both of those. It’s also an innovative way to create a better, less stressful, probably more efficient workplace. And we need more of all of that.

With that, all of us at BusinessWest wish you a happy, prosperous new year.



No one would ever call renovating Springfield’s Union Station the ‘easy’ part.

A different adjective would certainly be needed to describe a journey that has lasted roughly 40 years and included more ups and downs than anyone could count; file drawers full of plans that featured everything from an IMAX theater to a high-end restaurant to a day-care center; calls for action, and calls to mothball the thing and let the next generation figure it out.

To put things in perspective, BusinessWest turns 33 years old in a month or so; one of its very first cover stories was an in-depth conversation with then-station owner David Buntzman about what he planned to do with the landmark.

Dozens of stories and tens of thousands of words later, we are finally — finally — talking about Union Station in the present tense, rather than the past or future. As they say in the transportation business, it’s been quite a ride, and not one single thing about it, not even fixing the clock in the concourse or putting up the new sign over the door, has been easy.

But now comes what most would consider the even harder part — making the station viable, a word Webster defines this way: “capable of living; capable of growing or developing; capable of working, functioning, or developing adequately; capable of existence and development as an independent unit; having a reasonable chance of succeeding; financially sustainable.”

Most people believed that Union Station could be renovated — it would be difficult, but it was certainly doable. But many have wondered out loud and long doubted whether the station could live up to those definitions of ‘viable.’

And the questions were, and still are, well worth asking, because there must be a good reason for spending $80 million to renovate a building that doesn’t hold any real meaning, or solid memories, for anyone under the age of 60, other than nostalgia. And many people couldn’t find one.

But U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and his long-time aide Kevin Kennedy, now Springfield’s chief Development officer, pressed on, firm of the belief that the station could, indeed, be viable, as defined above, as a transportation hub, business center, and catalyst for further economic development in Springfield’s central business district.

We’re about to find out if they’re right, although it will certainly take several years and perhaps even a decade or more to fully answer that question.

There are many things going in the station’s favor, certainly, and together, they make the timing for its rebirth exponentially better than 10, 20, or even 30 years ago. So much so, in fact, that people might be glad it took so long to get this done.

They include continued progress in revitalizing Springfield and its downtown. The word ‘renaissance’ gets kicked around often, and it’s a little strong, but it probably works. If the station were to have opened a decade ago, with the city’s finances and its downtown in much worse shape, its prospects for viability would be far dimmer.

The same can be said regarding the rebirth of rail transportation in the Northeast corridor. New lines have been created, old ones revitalized, and talk continues about the state making a huge investment in an east-west line that would bring Boston a whole lot closer to Springfield, and vice versa. A decade ago, most of these developments were just talk or dreams.

The conditions are also much more favorable when it comes to urban living and demographics. Cities are making a huge comeback, and demographics are a big reason; Baby Boomers are retiring, and many are moving back to cities, especially walkable ones; meanwhile, Millennials seem to like cities (again, walkable ones) far more than their parents. They’re settling into cities, and many are choosing urban areas with transportation (usually rail) that can take them to work somewhere else.

And then, there’s the casino era launched by MGM Springfield. It’s a big part of this renaissance, and the agreement between the company and the city calls for MGM to pay $7.5 million over the next 15 years to help defray the costs of operating the station and building out spaces for tenants. A decade ago, such private-sector help and the cushion it provides was unimaginable.

So, the not-so-easy part is over, and the even harder part begins. There is still no shortage of skepticism out there, but if the station ever stood a chance of being truly viable, now is certainly the time.

Let this intriguing new era begin.



This is not the way Massachusetts intended its long-anticipated foray into casino gambling to go.

After opening to considerable hype and huge crowds last summer, the Plainridge Park slots parlor in the southeast corner of the state is clearly struggling.

All you need to know is that gambling marketing consultants hired before Plainridge opened predicted as much as $300 million in revenues the facility’s first year. The worst-case scenario, they said, was $210 million. But in November, the Massachusetts state budget office cut that figure to $160 million. That’s right, half of what the experts forecast.

And that was before a holiday season at Plainridge that was even slower than what the industry usually sees for that time of the year.

Theories abound for this slow start — the facility is too small and doesn’t have table games; the payouts are not as high as other casinos (even though they’ve moved upward); it doesn’t have as much to offer as the nearby Twin River Casino in Rhode Island; that its intended audience — mostly seniors — is too limited.

All of this may well be true, but there might be much more to this story, and it doesn’t bode well for Springfield and the $950 million MGM casino slated to open in the city’s South End in 2018.

Indeed, the very slow start at Plainridge might be ample, and very disturbing, evidence that Massachusetts is getting into casino gambling way too late, that legislators might have erred when they approved two resort casinos and a slots parlor — with the possibility of a third resort casino — and that the Commonwealth was naive to think that neighboring states would sit by idly and watch Massachusetts take gamblers and revenue from them.

Yes, it’s early in the game, and, yes, Plainridge is just a slots parlor, or so we’ve been told by the braintrust at MGM many, many times, but there is something very unsettling about Plainridge’s start, and to explain, we need to go back roughly three and a half years, to when the proposals for casinos started to take shape, especially in Western Mass.

That’s when one company decided it was prudent to plunk down $16 million for the former Westinghouse complex in East Springfield, along Route 291. That proposal never got out of the gate, let alone to the first turn or the second.

That’s also when a proposal for a parcel near Mass Pike exit 8 in Palmer, one that had already been on the table for a few years, was gaining steam as a viable alternative to the urban casinos blueprinted for Springfield. But it never moved past the local-vote stage, even in a community desperate for jobs and economic development.

We bring up those episodes, among many others, because, from the beginning, one of the assumptions area residents and elected officials have been making is that those in the casino industry must know what they’re doing. Those failures, and Plainridge’s slow start, have to make us wonder: do they really know what they’re doing?

Lance George, general manager of Plainridge Park, argues that his facility’s start is following a typical pattern when it comes to facilities (at least the first few parts) — fast start, then a slowdown, then a gradual upward climb. He told BusinessWest (see story, page 6) that the state and the press should be focused on the long term and not tracking revenues on a monthly basis, looking for patterns and reasons to explain them.

We hope he’s right. Again, these are the people who have been in the business, people who, we are told, know what they are doing.

But the same can be said for those who made those original revenue projections for Plainridge. And that’s why the start to the casino era in Massachusetts is a cause for concern.

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Send photos with a caption and contact information to: ‘Picture This’ c/o BusinessWest Magazine, 1441 Main Street, Springfield, MA 01103 or to [email protected]

Groundbreaking Event

MGMGroundbreakingShovelLowMGMGroundbreakingThe casino era officially began in Springfield on March 24, as ground was broken for MGM Springfield, an $800 million resort casino that will take shape in the city’s tornado-ravaged South End. Top, with the tornado-damaged Zanetti School in the background, Jim Murren, MGM Resorts International chairman and CEO, offers remarks to the hundreds in attendance. Above, the confetti canons go off as dignitaries handle the official groundbreaking duties.

Impactful Gift

PicThis1Mercy Medical Center recently announced that Cynthia and William Lyons of Wilbraham have made a $1 million challenge gift to Transforming Cancer Care – the Capital Campaign for the Sister Caritas Cancer Center. The Lyons’ gift will support the 26,000-square-foot expansion of the center and reflects the largest single gift for the campaign from members of the community. “We have been inspired by the high level of care and compassion that runs throughout the Sisters of Providence Health System,” said Cynthia Lyons. “The work being done at the Sister Caritas Cancer Center is especially exciting.” Under the leadership of Dr. Philip Glynn, director of Oncology, staff at the cancer center has expanded significantly to meet patient need; by 2022, demand for outpatient cancer services is expected to grow by 26%. The $15 million expansion will also bolster the center’s capabilities by enhancing communication among oncology providers and facilitating ease of access to existing services. The design of new infusion bays will increase privacy for patients, as well as for a supporting family member or friend. Sr. Mary Caritas, SP, is a member of the Sisters of Providence Health System (SPHS) board of trustees, was president of the former Mercy Hospital, and was a driving force behind the initial effort to build the cancer center that now bears her name. Pictured at right, Caritas and Daniel Moen, president and CEO of SPHS, display a photo of Bill and Cindy Lyons at the news conference announcing the gift.

Celebrating Sisterhood

2-BayPath159749-BayPath159746-BayPath1597414-BayPath1597410-BayPath15974More than 1,600 people packed the MassMutual Center on March 27 for the 20th annual Women’s Leadership Conference, presented by Bay Path University. The event, with the theme “Celebrating Sisterhood,” featured three keynote speakers — Angelique Kidjo, the ‘undisputed queen of African music’; Kathy Giusti, cancer survivor, philanthropist, and founder of two melanoma research foundations; and Cuban-born singer Gloria Estefan — as well as a host of breakout sessions on a wide range of topics. From top to bottom: Bay Path President Carol Leary present Estefan with a school sweatshirt; a group of Bay Path students enjoy the conference; Kidjo entertains the audience during her morning keynote address; Bay Path alumni represent the theme of the conference; and Sheila Heen, founder of Triad Consulting Group and author of Difficult Conversations and Thanks for the Feedback: the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Even When It’s Off-base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered, and Frankly, You’re Not in the Mood), solicits comments during her breakout session, “Thanks for the Feedback.”

Suit Up Springfield Will Do More Than Help Men Look the Part

From left, Jeremy Casey, Justin Roberts, and Nico Santaniello

From left, Jeremy Casey, Justin Roberts, and Nico Santaniello, three members of the board of mentors working to get Suit Up Springfield off the ground.

Justin Roberts acknowledged that not everyone wears a suit, or even a tie, in this age when casual Friday has seemingly given way to casual every day.

But he added quickly that many still do command a certain bit of respect for their choice of attire, and derive some all-important confidence from it as well. Meanwhile, there are many instances — especially the job interview — where formal wear remains a must, even for those who don’t have any in their closets.

And this is why Roberts, Development officer at American International College, partnered with several other young professionals across the region to create an organization called Suit Up Springfield.

As the name implies, this nonprofit’s mission is to put suits — and also ties, shirts, dress socks, and shoes, if necessary — in the hands of those who need them, similar to the way Dress for Success provides office-appropriate clothing, as well as mentoring and other forms of support for women looking to advance.

Indeed, like that organization, Suit Up Springfield, now barely two months old, plans to do much more than help men look the part and dress professionally. It will show them how to tie the ties they pick off the rack and how and when to button a suit, for starters, said Roberts, who is partial to bowties himself, and then it will drive home the point that simply wearing the right clothes isn’t enough to get a job — or succeed with one’s goals for life and work.

“The suit is a starting place,” said Roberts, adding that the agency, through its so-called ‘board of mentors,’ also plans to provide everything from interviewing tips to various levels of mentoring to advice on how to give back to the community and encouragement to do so.

“When you walk into a room wearing a suit, you gain the respect of the people in that room,” said Jeremy Casey, vice president of the board and a vice president with First Niagara Bank. “But to succeed, you need much more than the suit.”

At present, Suit Up Springfield has neither a location from which to carry out its mission nor a firm set of procedures on how to collect and dispense clothing — the board is working diligently on both assignments. But what it does have is momentum, and lots of it.

Ever since Roberts began finalizing his concept and announcing the group’s intentions through a host of social-media vehicles, the response — from within the city but also well outside it — has been nothing short of phenomenal, and also inspirational, giving those involved more hard evidence that they are meeting a recognized need.

This response has manifested itself in everything from pledges to donate clothing to requests about how and in what ways to volunteer support, to inquiries from groups and individuals about how to get similar programs off the ground in other cities.

“We put up a Facebook page, and within hours we had hundreds of likes,” said Casey. “And we had all these people reaching out, saying, ‘how can we help? We want to donate suits; we want to donate shirts,’ until it grew virally out of control, to the point where we have more than 500 e-mails in a queue right now saying, ‘we have multiple suits we want to donate.’

“The most incredible aspect of this month-and-a-half-long journey has been the number of people who have come out and said they want to help,” he went on. “I know from working on a lot of boards that many nonprofits solicit for help. We’re not soliciting for help, but more people are saying, ‘how can we get involved?’ which is extremely refreshing and shows the vibrance of this community and the need for this organization.”

Roberts agreed, and said his inbox and voice mail have been flooded with inquiries from individuals in other communities looking to emulate the model they’re creating or applaud the group’s efforts.

“I’ve been approached by people in Boston and Providence about this,” he said. “Within the first week of starting this, I got a call from every politician in Western Mass. as well some of the most powerful CEOs in the region. The response has been incredible.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at this fledgling nonprofit and how it intends to carry out its unique but all-important mission.

Knot Withstanding

Retracing the steps that led to the creation of Suit Up Springfield, Casey said the original idea tossed around by some of those involved was to meet a recognized need for formalwear by taking referred individuals to thrift shops and other outlets and purchasing items for them.

SuitUpLogoBut organizers quickly determined that the emerging nonprofit could — and should — be much more, with a system for collecting and dispensing thousands of items, and a mission that went beyond simply outfitting those who might need a 42-long and matching tie for a job interview or to move their career forward.

Early on in the discussions, Casey noted, it became clear that a mentoring component should be part of the equation.

“The suit is a catalyst to get them in the door,” he told BusinessWest. “If they get a suit from us, they have to go through our mentorship program, which teaches about civic engagement, professionalism, giving back to the community, and the things that happen to the community when you do those things.”

The Dress for Success program, which now has 125 affiliates in the U.S., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and other countries, serves as an attractive model to emulate, said Casey, adding that research revealed a lack of comparable agencies devoted to meeting the needs of men — as well as a desire to create some, as those e-mails suggested.

But while offering advice and inspiration to those in other cities looking to borrow this concept, Suit Up Springfield’s immediate goals are to create an infrastructure and start to collect the 1,200 to 1,500 suits that Casey believes have already been pledged, formally and informally.

Moving forward, Suit Up Springfield intends to move quickly to set up a storefront in or near downtown Springfield — the goal is the end of this year — and also finalize procedures for building an inventory of donated attire and then dispensing it, create a network for fielding referrals, and even forge a partnership with a dry cleaner, said Roberts, adding that the overarching goal is to create a sustainable model.

A changing commercial real-estate climate — one of many byproducts of the official start of the casino era in Springfield — has complicated the search for a location, but organizers remain confident they can find something, well, suitable, and in good order.

“If we were doing this a year ago, it would have been a lot easier, but the casino vote has certainly changed things,” said Casey, adding that, while downtown real estate is becoming an increasingly hot commodity, organizers are confident they can secure the space and visibility they require.

As for a process for accepting donations, organizers said they will look to create options — from individuals dropping off new or almost-new items at the agency’s eventual location (probably on a designated day or days each month) to area companies and nonprofits staging what Roberts called “suit drives” at their locations.

And organizers believe there will be plenty of clothing to collect.

They say they’ve already heard (mostly via e-mail) from college presidents, company CEOs, and a host of professionals, from lawyers to bankers to accountants, saying they are ready and willing to donate items from their closets.

Niko Santaniello, treasurer of the board and a financial adviser with Northwestern Mutual, said there are a number of factors — from changing styles to the more informal nature of business dress, to the growing ranks of retiring Baby Boomers who have far less need for suits and ties — that will help keep the racks filled in the years to come.

But the biggest factor, he told BusinessWest, is a desire to help the fledgling organization carry out its multi-faceted mission, meaning elements such as mentoring and helping individuals get involved in the community — and stay involved.

“One of the things we’ve discussed as a board is how to keep individuals we serve involved in the community,” he said, “whether it’s from volunteering at our storefront, joining the Young Professional Society, volunteering with a nonprofit, mentoring others, or showing guys how to tie a tie. We want them to stay involved.”

Casey agreed, and predicted that, if the organization develops as planned, its mission will benefit not only the individuals it serves, but the business community and the region as a whole.

“What business wouldn’t want someone else to do free training for a new employee?” he asked rhetorically. “Individuals are getting trained on civic engagement, which is something that 99% of organizations are passionate about, and also on professionalism, which is something that every business teaches right now, because they want to make sure their customers, or end users, are satisfied with the product or service they’re providing.”

A Natural Fit

As they talked with BusinessWest, Roberts, Casey, and Santaniello paused at one point to reference their brightly colored and wildly patterned Happy Socks, the Swedish product that has become a must-have accessory for young professionals.

They did so to illustrate how styles change and how important it can be to have the right look — whatever it is and for however long it remains in vogue.

Some things don’t change, though, they added quickly, noting that a suit always makes a statement, and sometimes it can help open a door.

Suit Up Springfield was created to not only help an individual find an open door, but give them the confidence to walk through it.

In the process of doing so, its organizers believe it will succeed with that mission of building opportunities.

For more information on the agency, visit www.suitupspringfield.com.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Casino Can’t Be Only Revitalization Plan

The Boston Globe was out visiting Springfield again recently. The paper does that on a fairly regular basis, usually to tell the rest of New England just how downtrodden the city is.
On this occasion, the paper chose to focus on a quiet Thursday night downtown — make that very quiet. “At 8:45 p.m., there was no traffic. No people or voices, either. Not a sound at all a block from City Hall, near the hulking MassMutual Center arena,” the story began. “As if on cue, a strip of plastic bubble wrap rolled down the empty street in the breeze, an urban tumbleweed. Office windows in the stately buildings along Main Street were dark, block upon block. A single sedan hogged the entire first level of the enormous Civic Center garage.”
Urban tumbleweed? OK, the writer needed such hyberbole if he was going to juxtapose what he perceives as the present — he would have seen a different picture on many nights, but that’s another story — with what may happen in the future if MGM builds its planned $800 million casino in the South End.
“It is difficult to overstate how much Springfield’s political leaders are counting on MGM to be the ‘economic engine’ that will drive the rebirth of a city tormented by an annual unemployment rate above 10% for the past five years,” the writer went on, before quickly, and correctly, pointing out the dismal track record of urban casinos when it comes to carrying out that assignment.
Perhaps the Globe writer is accurate in what he says, but we believe he might be overstating things a little. Let’s just say we hope he is.
Indeed, we’ve never considered this casino to be something that will drive Springfield’s rebirth. Rather, we think, and we hope, that it will be a big part of a rebirth that has proven quite elusive for this community.
And this is an important distinction moving forward. The casino isn’t — or shouldn’t be — the revitalization plan. But it can be a huge component in that plan.
Here’s what the casino will do:
• It will bring 2,500 to 3,000 jobs to a city that desperately needs them, which is the top line of any discussion concerning this proposal;
• It will redevelop several blocks of unused or underutilized property in the South End, much of it damaged by the 2011 tornado, for which there are few viable alternatives;
• It will bring several million people to Springfield each year. What happens after they get here and after they’re done gambling is a matter of debate, but it will at least bring people to the city;
• It will support a number of local businesses by buying from them or making them part of the casino complex;
• It will make the city a more attractive site for meetings and conventions; and
• It will, in many respects, make Springfield relevant again.
Here’s what the casino won’t do: it won’t magically transform Springfield into a bustling urban center overnight — or even in 10 or 15 years. That hasn’t happened in cities where casinos have been placed, and it won’t happen here, either.
For Springfield to enjoy a real rebirth and reduce those urban tumbleweeds, many other things have to happen besides the casino. For starters, market-rate housing must be developed downtown to attract young professionals and empty-nesters — constituencies with disposable income — to the city. But you can’t just build such housing and hope people will come (Hartford did that, and it didn’t work); you have to give people reasons to come, such as attractive jobs, nightlife, low crime rates, and a cultural community.
For a true rebirth, Springfield must also go about turning the lights back on in those office buildings the Globe mentioned, and it must create more avenues to a better life for the many people living at, or sometimes well below, the poverty line.
Springfield has become the right city at the right time when it comes to the casino era in Massachusetts. It was the only community in this region to vote ‘yes’ on a plan, and it is on the doorstep of one of the most intriguing chapters in its long history.
A casino won’t create a turnaround. But it can be a part of that process.

Cloud of Uncertainty Hangs Over Casinos

This should be a time of great anticipation and, yes, celebration for some players in the casino industry — and, likewise, in communities like Springfield, where there seems to be little that can prevent MGM Resorts International from winning a license to build and operate an $800 million resort facility in the city’s South End.

But it isn’t — at least to the extent that it could be.

That’s because there’s a very dark cloud of uncertainty hanging over gaming in Massachusetts, and it comes in the form of a lawsuit pending before the state Supreme Judicial Court. That suit was filed by the backers of efforts to repeal the state casino law passed in 2011. They gained enough signatures to place a referendum question on this November’s ballot, but then saw Attorney General Martha Coakley rule that the petition was unconstitutional because it would “impair the implied contracts between the [gaming] commission and gaming license applicants” and illegally “take” those contract rights without compensation.

Repeal backers then took their case — quite literally — to the SJC, which is slated to take up the matter in the late spring and render a decision by June or July. That should be a few months after the commission chooses the winning applicant for the lone slot-parlor license, and several weeks after it issues licenses for resort casinos in Boston (where there are two contenders) and Western Mass., where MGM is the only player standing.

Suffice it to say that, if all goes as expected and MGM wins this region’s license, most of the celebrating will be muted, if not postponed entirely, until the SJC settles what will be one of the most closely watched cases to come before it in years, and one where some experts are saying it’s hard to predict the outcome.

To say that there is a lot of stake would be a huge understatement. If the repeal backers win in court, and a majority of voters support their effort at the polls, then there will likely be no casino era in Massachusetts and, thus, no $800 stimulus to the Greater Springfield economy. And the millions, if not tens of millions, spent by the casino companies to bring their proposals to this stage would be wasted.

That explains why there is deep concern in the casino camps, and also why a coalition involving these players (including MGM) and the backers of casino gambling in this state has been formed to fight the repeal effort.

It is the coalition’s basic contention that the repeal initiative is, as Coakley ruled, unconstitutional, and amounts to the illegal taking of contract rights. In addition, they contend that the casino law passed in November 2011 is essentially working the way legislators intended it to, meaning that communities that don’t want a casino within their borders can vote such a proposal down (and many have), while residents who do support them can also control their fate at the ballot box, as voters in Springfield did.

Michael Mathis, head of the MGM’s so-called ‘Springfield initiative,’ summed things up nicely in recent comments to the press. “Our plan was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of voters,” he remarked. “It would be devastating to roll back all that has been accomplished and take away the promise of what it is to come.”

Citing a recent poll conducted by the Western New England University Polling Institute showing that 61% of Massachusetts adults support the establishment of casinos in the state (roughly the same number as in 2009 and 2010), some casino backers and gaming executives are confidently downplaying the likelihood that a repeal effort would succeed should it reach the ballot.

These individuals shouldn’t ever underestimate the ability of voters in this state to surprise them, or to attempt to rule by referendum. It happened with nuclear power plants, which were banned in 1988, and with dog tracks 20 years later.

It could happen with casino gambling, but we don’t believe the measure should come before the voters at all. It is our hope that the SJC concurs with Coakley and declares this bid unconstitional.

Unless or until it does, that dark cloud of uncertainty will continue to hover over the casino era in the Bay State.

Life in a Changed Casino Landscape

What a difference a year makes.
At just about this time last year, there were five proposals for a Western Mass. resort casino on the drawing board — or close to being there — in Springfield, West Springfield, and Palmer, and there was potential for another taking shape in Holyoke.
And all this attention to the western portion of the state was resulting from the perception that the stars — politically and otherwise — were aligned for a casino at Suffolk Downs in East Boston and that it seemingly made little sense to enter that fray.
Today, there is one Western Mass. casino plan still on the table after the voters in West Springfield and Palmer said no to the proposals for their communities, and the Springfield competition was whittled from three to one. Meanwhile, the voters of East Boston turned thumbs down to the Suffolk Downs plan, leaving those developers faced with a long-shot (that’s an industry term) bid to shift the site of the planned construction to 51 acres they own in neighboring Revere, where voters actually said ‘yes.’
Quite the turn of events.
So, what are we to make of all this? For starters, it’s quite evident that while the Legislature finally came around to the idea of commencing the casino era in Massachusetts, the voters, except those in a few isolated communities, including Springfield, have said, in essence, ‘fine, but not in my town.’
This sentiment was not surprising in West Springfield, where the casino planned for the Big E seemed a stretch, and the concerns about traffic were considerable. But the Palmer vote was a shocker, because this was a community that seemingly wanted a casino and, much like Springfield, lacked anything approaching a plan B when it comes to job creation and economic development.
All this means that the competition the Mass. Gaming Commission and its chairman, Stephen Crosby, were so desperate to create 18 months ago has all but dissolved, especially here, in the four counties of Western Mass.
And this has us somewhat worried, because while MGM, the lone casino developer still standing in Western Mass. and the owner of an apparently free ride to the coveted license for this region, is a responsible company that has done just about everything right so far in this contest, this region would certainly benefit from having that competition.
That’s because competition always makes a company better. That’s the case in every other business sector, and it is certainly so with gaming. Had the voters of Palmer said ‘yes,’ the commission would have had an intriguing matchup to decide, a classic urban-versus-surburban contest that would have given the decision makers quite a bit to think about.
It is now incumbent upon the Gaming Commission to create this competition artificially, for lack of a better term.
There may be only one casino proposal for Western Mass., but it must still be a first-class operation that works for Springfield and, to the greatest extent possible, for the many impacted communities as well.
We have endorsed the MGM proposal as the best of the options for Springfield, and we still have confidence that this operator can and will build a facility that will help — that’s help — revitalize the city and especially its South End, but without negatively impacting existing cultural attractions and businesses in the hospitality sector.
In this now radically changed casino landscape where competition here no longer exists, it’s up to the Gaming Commission to make sure that’s what happens.

Bruce Stebbins Relishes His Role with the State’s Gaming Commission

StebbinsBruce Stebbins doesn’t remember the exact wording of the letter from the search firm that came roughly 20 months ago and would eventually prompt an abrupt career course change and thrust him into the middle of the casino era in Massachusetts.
But he remembers the gist, and the key sentence or two that certainly caught his eye.
“It talked about how the firm was trying to find an individual or individuals to serve on the Massachusetts Gaming Commission,” he said. “I don’t recall whether it said ‘from Western Massachusetts,’ but it did say, ‘if you know of anyone, or if you yourself might have any interest, feel free to give us a call.’
“So I called them back,” continued Stebbins, who, at the time, was serving as business development administrator in Springfield. “And while I was really happy doing what I was doing for the city, I inquired a little more about the position and what it involved. I didn’t have any friend or colleague or someone I knew who I was going to recommend, but I just wanted to find out more about it. By the end of the phone call with the recruiter I’d made up my mind to send him my resume.”
Fast-forward just a few weeks (things were moving quickly because deadlines for filling the panel were looming) and he was being interviewed by the governor, attorney general, and treasurer — the three officials who would collectively decide who won this slot on the board — and eventually prevailed. Jump ahead another 18 months, and he and the other four members are closing in on some of the most anticipated decisions in recent state history, choices that will change the landscape of cities and regions, both literally and figuratively, and alter the fortunes of countless individuals and businesses.
At present, the commission is neck deep in the process of deciding the winner of the contest for the one slots parlor that was made part of the gaming legislation passed nearly two years ago. Three proposals are being reviewed, and a decision is due early next year, said Stebbins.
Concurrently, the board is also advancing the process of determining who will win up to three licenses for resort casinos; there are competitions being played out in the three designated regions for such licenses — the Boston area, Western Mass., and Southeastern Mass.
And while a decision is not due on those licenses until early next spring, the commission is already having a huge impact on the proceedings.
Indeed, when a suitability assessment by commission investigators raised questions about Caesars Entertainment, a partner in the bid to put a casino at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, the industry giant abruptly withdrew — at the behest of its partner — throwing the Boston area competition into something approaching chaos as a Nov. 5 referendum vote on the proposal looms and the Suffolk Downs team scrambles to find a new partner.
The startling turn of events prompted the Boston Globe to praise the commission for setting the bar high when it comes to the standards that casino companies will have to meet in the Bay State. And it also inspired Caesar’s President Gary Loveman to opine that the bar has been set too high.
“It’s going to be very difficult for sophisticated multi-jurisdictional operators to tolerate the environment this commission has created,” he told the press.

Mass. casino

Deciding the winner of the contest for the Western Mass. casino license — likely to be between MGM Springfield, left, and Mohegan Sun Massachusetts — will be one of many challenging assignments facing Stebbins and the other gaming commission members.

Deciding the winner of the contest for the Western Mass. casino license — likely to be between MGM Springfield, top, and Mohegan Sun Massachusetts — will be one of many challenging assignments facing Stebbins and the other gaming commission members.
[/caption]When queried about the Suffolk Downs development and, in general, the height of that aforementioned bar, Stebbins, obviously choosing words carefully and sounding a lot like Bill Belichick at one of his press conferences, said, “this is what the statute was intended to do; we need to be as thorough as possible, and our investigators have to be diligent and follow up every lead. We want to impress upon people that we want operators who have great business practices to be the ones operating casinos in Massachusetts.”
And when asked if he and his fellow commission members are feeling the pressure that will certainly accompany the decisions to come, Stebbins smiled broadly, implied that ‘pressure’ was probably too strong a word, but nonetheless verified the enormity of the moment.
“All five of us acknowledge that because there’s a limited number of licenses, we understand that we have one shot to get this done right,” he said. “We’re also buffeted by the fact that over half the states in the U.S. have done this before and there is a great working relationship with other jurisdictions.”
For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Stebbins about everything from his experiences on the commission to date to the factors he believes will ultimately decide how the casino licenses are awarded, including the one for the Western Mass. region.

Playing His Cards Right

Stebbins isn’t the official Western Mass. representative on the gaming commission, but that’s how he’s generally regarded.
He’s the only member from this part of the state, and he acknowledges that a desire on the part of those assembling the panel to create geographic diversity probably aided his cause. As did a quest for political diversity — Stebbins is a Republican, and one of the stipulations for this commission, he said, was that there not be more than two members for any one political party. (He assumes there are two Democrats and two Republicans, but isn’t sure of the affiliation of the fifth member; “we don’t wear our politics on our sleeves.”)
And he believes his work history, which includes a number of roles in business and economic development, might have turned some heads.
Indeed, Stebbins’ resume includes everything from a stint in the White House — as associate director of Political Affairs while George Bush the elder was in office — to two terms as a Springfield city councilor; from a short run as director of the Mass. Office of Business Development to a decade-long tenure as senior regional manager of the National Association of Manufacturers.
He said the experience gained at these various stops has certainly helped him with his current workload, but that his time with the gaming commission has also helped him grow professionally and sharpen existing skills sets.
“I think there are certainly skills and experiences I’m having that will help round me out as a professional and as an executive,” said Stebbins, who repeatedly compared his work on the commission — and its role in bringing the gaming industry to Massachusetts — to getting a startup business off the ground.
“I was intrigued by two things,” he said, when recalling what prompted this latest line on his resume. “Part of it was setting something up from the ground floor, albeit a government, regulatory agency. Taking something and building it from a piece of legislation — I thought that was a unique opportunity considering my years in public service. I’d never really had the opportunity to do that before; it was enticing.
“It’s not completely akin to a small business, because we came with an operating budget already in hand from the Legislature,” he continued, “but similar to a small company, we were building a way to do business, recruiting and building a team, and coming up with a mission statement, just like any business does, while at the same time learning about a business that was completely new to Massachusetts.
“The other intriguing part of this was the economic aspect,” he went on. “We’re introducing a whole new industry to Massachusetts and really focusing on the priorities of the statute, which are the job creation piece in difficult economic times, and the impact on tourism and small business — this was right up my alley when it came to my background and experiences.”
He said he took on the assignment expecting that there would be large amounts of travel and reading, and there have been both; he commutes to Boston four days a week, spending Friday in Western Mass., and the three slot parlor applications alone account for roughly 20,000 pages of material, although he acknowledged quickly that he doesn’t have to consume all of that.
Beyond that, he anticipated that it would be a learning experience on a number of levels, and it has been that as well.
When asked to elaborate on what he has learned, Stebbins listed everything from insight into just how competitive the gaming industry is, to lessons learned from the experiences of other jurisdictions, such as Atlantic City.
“New Jersey felt that by introducing casino gaming in an effort to revive Atlantic City there would instantly be jobs and opportunities for all the people living in that city,” he noted. “But the casinos came in, the people living in Atlantic City didn’t have the skills and the basic training assistance, and they missed out on the job opportunities that were created, and that’s why Atlantic City languished and some would say it continues to languish. It missed out on some opportunities.”

Odds and Ends

When asked if the decisions regarding the casino licenses were matters of objective or subjective analysis, Stebbins said there is certainly far more of the former, but there is certainly some of the latter.
Elaborating, he noted that proposals will be weighed in five categories — financial, building and site design, mitigation, economic development, and something he called ‘general overview of the project,’ and then described as the “wow factor.”
It is in that last category where there is some subjectivity, he told BusinessWest, adding that with the other four, analysis generally comes down to hard numbers, and lots of them.
“A good percentage of the information is very objective — ‘tell us the number of people you’re hiring,’ ‘show us the plans you intend to work with,’ ‘what’s your debt-to-equity ratio?,’ ‘what are your plans for implementing LEED gold design into your building?, ‘what are your plans for mitigating the impact on the lottery?,’” he explained, noting that for each of the five categories he mentioned applicants are given one of four ratings.
These are ‘insufficient,’ ‘sufficient,’ ‘exceeds expectations,’ and ‘outstanding,’ he went on, adding these ratings, as well as the answers to the 230 questions applicants must answer will be discussed in a public meeting before votes are taken on the specific licenses, including the one for what’s known as Region 2, Western Massachusetts.
When asked what may decide that competition, which will likely be an urban versus suburban matchup featuring MGM Springfield and Mohegan Sun Massachusetts in Palmer (a vote on the host-community agreement in that latter community is set for Nov. 5), Stebbins said it, like the others, will be determined by the tenets of the legislation — and perhaps by that ‘wow factor.’
“The purpose of the statute was to generate revenue for the Commonwealth and create jobs,” he explained. “A lot of the evaluation questions address the other requirements that were put in the statute.
“The general overview portion of this, the ‘wow factor,’ might well be more of a subjective answer,” he continued. “But backing all this up is that we want to know what these players’ track records are in other jurisdictions; have they met their promises? Have they done what they said they were going to do? How have those other facilities operated?”
Meanwhile, the commission will attempt to emulate the best practices of other jurisdictions and learn from what has gone right — and wrong — in other states, he went on.
“We’re all happy to share information and regulations,” he said of those other states. “They’ve been great to talk to; they’re candid and honest — they’ll say ‘we tried to do it this way and didn’t really work out that well. There are great opportunities to build on the best practices of other jurisdictions.”
While the pending decisions on the licenses are certainly the most pressing item facing the commission, its work certainly won’t end there, he told BusinessWest, adding there will be considerable regulatory work to finish, issues with the licensing process, and monitoring the progress of those companies who win the regional competitions.
“It shifts into a regulatory and oversight function,”he said, “but there will be a lot of important work to do.”

The Bottom Line
Stebbins said he’s just over half-way through a term that will last three years. It is possible that he will be awarded another, longer term and perhaps even two (commissioners can serve up to 10 years), but he acknowledged that there will be different people serving as governor and attorney general by then, and they may have some other ideas.
At the moment though, he isn’t focused on the future, but rather the present, and his large role in something that could only be described as historic.
Looking back on that letter from the recruiter that started him down this road, he said that what appealed to him initially — a chance to bring a new industry into Massachusetts and be part of a huge economic development initiative — continues to fuel his imagination today.
If his career gambit was a roll of the dice, he believes he’s thrown a 7.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Insurance Sections
How Would a Casino Impact Downtown Real Estate?

John Williamson

John Williamson says a casino, if approved, will start a chain reaction of tenant relocations and other real-estate activity.

John Williamson says “the stage is being set” for a flurry of real-estate activity in downtown Springfield — all related to an $800 million casino development that might never materialize.
“There’s an interesting dynamic taking place in the central business district of Springfield,” said the president of Williamson Commercial Properties. In the event that MGM Resorts International wins its bid to build a gaming resort just a few blocks south of the downtown towers, “they’re in the process of trying to assemble as much of the property as they can in the project area, which involves getting various properties under contract to purchase.”
Robert Greeley, partner at R.J. Greeley Co., has noticed the same dynamic taking shape. “Still, until a decision is made, however long that takes, there are so many uncertainties that it’s very difficult for people to make decisions,” he noted. “A lot of owners and landlords will hold out, thinking there’s a windfall on its way, but until they know whether the casino is coming or not, it just puts a significant unknown into the equation.”
Bob Greeley

Bob Greeley says casino proponents tend to gloss over the possible negative impacts of major construction and traffic.

The general consensus among real-estate brokers headquartered in downtown Springfield is that the short-term chess moves — building owners contracting with MGM and current tenants of those buildings scrambling to find other homes for their businesses — has begun in earnest, particularly since city leaders chose to back MGM’s project over the other competing proposal, by Penn National Gaming in the North End.
“We’re anticipating the relocation of some businesses in the project area, and those things are all ongoing,” Williamson said. “There are numerous properties that MGM has under contract; if the casino goes through, it will acquire those properties. There are also a few properties they’ve already purchased. If the casino doesn’t go through, they’ll simply turn around and sell the properties they acquired.”
None of this early movement should come as a surprise, said Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, considering the scope and cost of the proposal — neither of which Springfield has encountered before.
“That’s going to impact a lot of things that go on downtown. In the short term, in anticipation of a possible casino, a lot of people are jockeying around, trying to relocate. The goal is to try to keep businesses in the downtown and not have them move out. My sense is that many of the businesses want to stay in the downtown.”
And that perception touches on the bigger real-estate question downtown: what will the long-term impact be if the Gaming Commission grants MGM a casino license early next year, when the voting is slated to take place?
“There’s a positive effect on the commercial market already taking place, and also expanding opportunity out there in the form of speculation,” Williamson said. “I know there are properties that, because of the fact that they may be acquired, have magically increased in value, so there’s a lot of jockeying for position going on.
“If the casino comes to Springfield,” he continued, “it’s going to have a dramatic impact on the commercial market, and especially the commercial office market, because there are several office buildings in the project area that will be razed to make room for the casino. Those tenants have to find alternative quarters, and that means the amount of office space in the market will decline, and vacancy will diminish. That increase in occupancy raises the value of all properties, which benefits the tax base. It’s good old supply and demand.”
Some aren’t convinced, however, that a casino will be an attractive business neighbor, particularly in the short team. Greeley, for one, cited potential impacts on traffic, street closures, and general construction-related bustle for several years to come. “I think most people who have not experienced this scale of project will be freaked out by the kind of traffic impacts this thing has.”
For this issue’s focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest delves into the pros and cons, both short- and long-term, of the proposed MGM Springfield casino, and why it’s generating both excitement and anxiety for area property owners and tenants alike.

Lease of Their Problems
Springfield is competing with two other proposals — Hard Rock International in West Springfield, and Mohegan Sun in Palmer — for the sole gaming license the state will award in Western Mass. If MGM is successful, Williamson said, commercial vacancy downtown will certainly decline.
“Landlords now sitting on a lot of vacancy have potential to fill varying amounts of that space up. It’s good for the market all around,” he told BusinessWest. “Lease rates in Springfield have been flat or slightly declining for years, moreso in the class B and C market — the class A market is pretty stable ­and really won’t be impacted as significantly as B and C properties at the present time.”
From a broker’s perspective, he said, the project will generate demand for space, at least within a six- or seven-block radius of the casino. “This has been called the largest economic-development project in the history of Springfield, taking place smack dab in the heart of the central business district. It will really strengthen the class B and C commercial properties downtown.”
One downside, he said, is tenants finding they have to pay more rent than they are currently paying, “but in some cases, the landlord is going to have to buy them out of their leases, if they have long-term leases, because they need the building to be sold free and clear of all tenants. That may offset any increase in rent they’ll have to pay.”
The possibility of a casino has placed many businesses in a tough place, Greeley said — both those interested in moving into the casino zone, and those who might be forced out. “No one wants to sign a long-term lease not knowing what the future is going to be. It’s a problem.”
And if the casino doesn’t come, he added, after all the preliminary scurrying among property owners near the MGM proposal, “a lot of people will be left with stars in their eyes, and it’ll take them awhile to come back down to earth and be realistic about what the market is without a casino.”
As an analogy, he cited a CVS or Walgreens that overpays — say, $1.5 million — for a corner lot. “Now, the owners of the other three corners, who paid $400,000, think they can get a million and a half, but that’s not going to happen just because CVS was willing to pay it. That purchase really distorts the market.”
In the same way, he continued, if the casino era closes in Springfield several months from now, as abruptly as it began, site owners who were hoping for a casino buyout might be left with an inflated sense of how much South End property is actually worth.
But if MGM does win the Western Mass. bid, “you’ll see opportunities for businesses,” Williamson said. “Some stand-alone businesses may be able to replicate what they do inside the casino. It’s really to MGM’s credit that they’re looking at local companies to have a major presence in the casino. Some of the mom-and-pops may find themselves smack dab right in the middle of the most expensive economic-development project to take place in this city.”
Plotkin agreed, citing MGM’s promotion of its ‘inside-out’ casino concept, one that incorporates surrounding businesses in the project.
“The development plan is very outward-focused, and it’s going to incorporate a lot of the other businesses and entertainment venues downtown,” he said. “And I would hope the cultural and entertainment aspects will not only be an attraction regionally for people to come and visit Springfield, but perhaps to live in Springfield.”
Plotkin likes to paint a picture of downtown Springfield as a sort of an “urban theme park,” he explained. “How do you create that? What do you need to incorporate in a downtown to make it welcoming for people to live and work? If you have a catalyst like MGM, a development of that size and scope, it’s natural you’re going to have spinoff businesses, and hopefully that will lead to more development of market-rate housing and subsequent retail — not just retail associated with the casino, but other retail that you would need to provide goods and services to people moving downtown. I think there’s potential for tremendous spinoff.”

In Demand
Of course, that kind of commercial spinoff will require an influx of talented workers, in a variety of fields, Plotkin noted.
“Businesses are looking for a trained workforce, and a lot of us on the sidelines are wondering if there is enough of a trained workforce in the region to satisfy what MGM needs,” he said, adding that Greater Springfield companies will also have to deal with competition from a casino that needs some 2,000 employees and will certainly lure many away from their current jobs. “I think it’s important that businesses see an increased flow of human capital to the area; that’s a critical point for our success as a city.”
Greeley — who was involved in a third Springfield casino proposal, pitched by Ameristar Casinos on Page Boulevard, until that project was withdrawn late last year — remains unconvinced that a South End casino will be the economic-development catalyst many hope it will be.
“If the casino comes, you have all the impacts over three years, at least, for all the construction and disruption that accompanies such a project,” he said. “This will be the largest construction project in the history of Springfield, and if it’s coming, it’s going to take years for the property owners not directly involved with the casino to come to terms with whether or not they’re going to be positively affected.
“I don’t want to be the rain-on-the-parade guy,” Greeley continued, “but I am very skeptical how much positive effect there will be outside the casino-owned facilities. For example, I don’t think the Fort restaurant will benefit. People aren’t going to eat at the Fort, then come to the casino. That’s not the mentality anywhere.”
Plotkin disagrees. “In all my discussions with MGM, we believe they’re an organization that has a great understanding of what the urban landscape should look like. They’re not looking at a casino in a vacuum; they’re looking at the big picture. Frankly, nobody wants to visit a city just to drop into the city casino, and then leave.
“This is an opportunity,” he told BusinessWest, “to make the entire city more welcoming, to shine a light on some other offerings we have as a downtown, which are many, but have been underappreciated by a lot of people.”
Greeley sees it differently. “A lot of people are drinking the Kool-Aid about how impactful this is going to be on development outside the casino footprint,” he said, “but nothing suggests to me that adding a whole bunch of traffic to the South End will be helpful to other businesses than those directly involved in the casino.
“I think this is being sold as a panacea,” he concluded. “That’s how it’s being marketed. But I haven’t seen a building yet where the renderings didn’t look wonderful.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at  [email protected]

Moving Beyond the Pretty Pictures

MGM Resorts International staged a lavish press event at the MassMutual Center last week to announce its plans to build a casino and entertainment complex in Springfield’s South End. There was an overflow crowd, music, high-tech imagery, performers from Cirque du Soleil, and a full complement of media.

Springfield hadn’t seen anything quite like it before, but it will see something like it again, and probably very soon. Indeed, with the MGM event, the casino era in Western Mass. entered a new and intriguing phase. Let’s call it the ‘pretty pictures stage.’

Actually, they’re architect’s renderings, and there were a few on display in the packets being handed out at the MassMutual Center. They showed a South End teeming with people, lights, and vibrancy, a stark contrast to what exists now. Older buildings and properties damaged by last year’s tornado had been replaced by storefronts, restaurants, and attractive buildings for market-rate housing.

And along with the pictures came promises, in this case to connect the casino complex with downtown entertainment venues, such as the MassMutual Center, via a pedestrian walkway, thus eliminating one of the major complaints about casinos — that they keep people inside their walls and don’t spread the wealth. There were also pledges to incorporate existing downtown buildings, such as the former MassMutual headquarters at the corner of State and Main streets, and existing businesses, such as the Red Rose pizzeria, into the MGM complex.

There will be more of these press events, renderings, and promises in the weeks and months to come. There are casino plans unfolding for the North End of Springfield, involving the Republican building and other parcels, as well as the old Westinghouse complex in East Springfield, and perhaps another for a site in the middle of the central business district.

The trouble with these images, however, is that they tend to blind people, create expectations, and, in many ways, distract them from any other form of economic development and urban revitalization.

Indeed, with the start of the pretty pictures stage, it is quite evident that Springfield, and this region as a whole, needs some form of resolution to the question of where the casino is going to go — and the sooner the better. That’s because nothing is going to get done until that $64,000 question is answered.

Look at what has happened in Palmer. Mohegan Sun started putting out pretty pictures of what a casino on the hill just off the turnpike exit would look like, and the town has been in what amounts to a trance since. Granted, there is nothing approaching a Plan B for job creation and overall economic development in that community, but nothing else will even be considered until the casino matter is resolved.

In Springfield, we’re starting to see signs of the same thing. The phrase ‘tornado reconstruction’ seems old and passé. The matter of rebuilding the battered South End is on the back burner, and it will stay there until the winner of the Springfield casino sweepstakes is announced.

The same is true for other areas of the city, including the North End and the center of downtown. Almost everything now seems to hinge on where the casino will go — if Springfield lands one at all — and what the plan entails.

So it is incumbent upon those who will be making the decisions locally and then on a statewide basis to be diligent, thoughtful — this could be, after all, the biggest development in Springfield since the building of the Armory more than 200 years ago — but also expeditious.

There are currently about as many casino plans for Springfield as there are for the rest of the state combined, and the longer we have to look at the pretty pictures, consider the possibilities, and speculate, the longer it will be before we can move this city forward.

Quaboag Chamber Spotlights an Intriguing Region

Lenny Weake

With the passing of gaming legislation, Lenny Weake says, the Quaboag chamber is now committed to fully harnessing whatever a Palmer casino would bring to the region.

When the state Legislature passed a comprehensive gaming bill last fall, it did more than usher in the casino era in the Commonwealth.
It also changed Lenny Weake’s job description. Well, sort of.
“Let’s just say they broadened it in a way,” said Weake, president of the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce, which is headquartered less than a mile from where Mohegan Sun wants to build a resort casino on a hillside just off the Mass Pike exit in Palmer.
Elaborating, Weake said that, in the years leading up to that historic vote, the Quaboag chamber was in many respects a spectator on the gaming issue, taking a Switzerland-like stance of neutrality on a matter that sharply divided its membership. But with the passing of gaming legislation, the chamber understood that it could no longer stand on the sidelines, he told BusinessWest, adding that the issue now isn’t whether casinos are right for the state, it’s about jobs and economic development, the foundations of the chamber’s mission.
And, more to the point, it’s about effectively “harnessing” (a word Weake would use often) the vast potential for commerce and economic vitality that comes with a casino in one’s backyard.
“Everything has shifted … this isn’t about gaming anymore; it’s about what Palmer could be in the next five years,” he explained. “We’re not going to sit by and let this thing develop without making sure that we’re part of the process.
“Our role is changing; if Mohegan Sun is going to bring 4 million people into the region each year, we need to figure out how to work with those people and get those visitors off the mountain, in a sense, and get them into our communities,” he continued. We can’t let this economic development go by and not be a part of it, and not figure out a way to harness those 4 million visitors and have them explore the region.”
In recent months, this mindset has manifested itself in many ways, said Weake, but mostly through meetings with Mohegan Sun officials, town administrators, members of the Gaming Commission itself, and other players, including Northeast Realty, a development group that is advancing a number of additional development plans in and around Palmer, most of them contingent upon a casino being built in that community.
The broad assignment in each case, he said, is to make sure the Quaboag region’s business community has a voice in the proceedings, and that its interests are clearly understood. And in many ways, this simply represents a logical extension of the chamber’s ongoing work to promote and advance business in the region, Weake noted, adding that his work often comes down to putting the Quaboag area on the map — in a figurative sense.
Indeed, one of Weake’s priorities since he arrived at the chamber more than a decade ago has been to create and expand initiatives that will help people discover this region that lies roughly halfway between Springfield and Worcester and boasts attractions ranging from the Quabbin Reservoir to the giant antiques show in Brimfield — and, while doing so, support its businesses.
His latest effort in this regard is what he calls a “treasure hunt.” Still very much a work in progress, the initiative, based loosely on the hobby known as letterboxing (in which small, weatherproof boxes are hidden in publicly accessible areas, with clues distributed about how to find them), is designed to encourage people to get out and explore a region still in many ways saddled with the label ‘best-kept secret.’
“We want to expose people living right in our region to all there is to see and do here,” said Weake. “And while they’re out exploring, we want them to experience the restaurants we have here and other types of businesses and attractions.”

Exploring All Options
As he talked about the Quaboag chamber, Weake said it is similar to most such organizations in the Bay State, but has some unique challenges.
First, there is its sheer size; it stretches from Palmer east to Spencer, just outside Worcester, covering three counties (Hampden, Hampshire, and Worcester) and two area codes, a region covered by 10 different newspapers. Meanwhile, the communities represented by the chamber — Belchertown, Brimfield, Brookfield, East Brookfield, Hardwick, Holland, Monson, New Braintree, North Brookfield, Palmer, Spencer, Wales, Ware, Warren, and West Brookfield — are small (total population is about 36,000), and the business community is dominated by small (in most cases, very small) businesses.
Many of the communities, including Palmer and Ware, are former manufacturing centers trying to reinvent themselves and attract new sources of jobs, with many focusing on tourism.
As a result, much of the chamber’s work involves promoting and branding the region, and thus driving visitorship, said Weake, citing the Brimfield antiques shows, which the chamber promotes extensively through its Web site, as one primary example. The chamber also prints an annual recreation guide, which includes information on accommodations, attractions, events, farms, orchards, restaurants, shops, and more.
The ‘treasure-hunt’ concept is the latest manifestation of these efforts, he said, adding that much of the Quaboag region, despite the chamber’s best efforts, remains an unknown quantity to many Baystate residents. By compelling area residents and visitors to look for the various clues, the chamber is expecting them to learn about the area, individual communities, and, yes, specific businesses.
“We want to create something that will make people search through the region, learn about history, learn about the towns, but also have fun doing it,” he said, adding that the chamber is working to create what he called a prototype involving the town of Monson. “We want to come up with a treasure hunt, where, in the process of finding clues, people can learn all about this area.
“It’s in its beginning stages — we have to develop the concept, and then we have to sell it,” he continued, adding that the program will be akin to but not exactly like letterboxes. “We want people to see what we have; we want them to learn about people like [Hall of Fame baseball owner and manager] Connie Mack, who grew up in Brookfield.”
But there is much more to the chamber’s work than tourism, said Weake, adding that services to members have included everything from assistance in the wake of last summer’s tornadoes (Monson and Brimfield were especially hard-hit) to an annual resources directory, to a concept called Hot Deals, which enables businesses to post promotions on the chamber’s Web site.
The passing of gaming legislation last fall simply adds another comprehensive layer of advocacy to the chamber’s workload, he said, adding that the coming months will be both exciting and challenging.
Summing up the chamber’s involvement in the broad gaming issue, Weake repeatedly came back to that notion of harnessing everything that casinos bring to the table, from those projected 4 million visitors to actual commerce (hopefully to be conducted with local vendors), to hundreds of employees, many of whom might need a map to find Palmer.
“When Mohegan goes out to bid on products and services, we want to make sure that our businesses can competitively bid,” he explained, citing just one example of how the chamber will attempt to assist Quaboag-area companies and make sure their voices are heard. “We want to be able to educate businesses on how to work with Mohegan.”
Another example, he went on, is the point systems used by casino resorts to reward repeat customers. “We want to work with Mohegan and try to make sure businesses in this region can redeem those points,” he explained, “so people can go to the Salem Cross Inn [in Brookfield], for example, with points they’ve earned in Palmer.”
Weake said that individual casino developers looking to win the approval of the five-member Gaming Commission must make their applications as attractive as possible, and a big part of this involves commitments to partner with the community as a whole and the business community as well.
He said part of the changed, expanded role for the Quaboag chamber is to shape those partnerships in mutually benefiting ways.

Doubling Down
Weake stressed repeatedly that the chamber’s current work with regard to the matter of gaming should not be described as efforts to support a casino in Palmer. Rather, it is about job creation, economic development, and giving the business community stretched across those 15 Quaboag towns a strong voice in the matters of the day.
In that respect, the Legislature’s vote last fall did not technically change his job description — it merely added many new dimensions to what he was already doing every day.
And there’s a good bet — literally and figuratively — that these efforts will only become more elaborate, and intriguing, in the months and years to come.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Springfield Is Now Casino Central

Seemingly overnight — although it has actually been this way for months — Springfield has become ground zero in the ongoing and increasingly bizarre efforts to usher in the casino era in Massachusetts.
Indeed, while many of the initiatives are in their infancy stages — meaning there are no casino developers attached to them — there are now apparently at least three casino projects in the making in Springfield, and perhaps many more that are soon to be on the drawing board. Compare this to other regions of the state, specifically the eastern and southeastern areas, where there is little if any competition for casino licenses at this stage, and it’s clear that Springfield may well become the main battleground in perhaps the most important new business development in the Commonwealth in a generation — or two, or three.
And because the stakes are so enormous, there is, or should be, tremendous pressure on the city and its officials to get this right. And already there are signs that this is going to get very, very ugly, and potentially bad for the City of Homes.
But let’s back up a minute. Recent headlines have revealed the existence of what have become known in some circles as the “north” and “south” casino plans, reportedly being pieced together by brothers Peter (the north) and Paul Picknelly. The latter apparently involves aggregation of several parcels in the tornado-ravaged South End of the city, while the former involves property just off I-91 in the North End, including the sprawling Springfield Newspapers building. That’s an intriguing development that leaves the region’s largest media outlet unable to comment on perhaps the most important aspect of the casino issue (where to put one) and with a serious credibility issue when it comes to coverage of all aspects of this saga.
But that’s another story.
The real story in our view, is that because of the strong political support for casinos in Springfield, fueled in large part by the city’s continuing fiscal struggles and urgent need for jobs, and corresponding strong interest from developers, there is an apparently bitter battle brewing that has the potential to divide the community (people are already settling into various camps) and turn what could be a great opportunity into a situation where it might be difficult to tell who, if anyone, actually wins.
There is already speculation among some city leaders, including Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy, that intense competition for a casino license in Springfield will wind up benefiting the community. The theory goes that with so many suitors, the city can likely broker a better deal from any and all of the players. We hope they’re right, but so many rival plans may wind up creating a situation where people are working against one another to get what’s best for them, instead of working together, as they should be, to get what’s best for the community.
And in the meantime, all this focus on casinos is very likely to divert needed attention from the many other issues facing this city — from schools to poverty.
We’re not sure it’s possible — in fact, we’re quite sure it’s not possible — to get the city and its officials behind one casino plan and make a concerted effort to create a proposal that works for the community and could gain the favor of the Gaming Commission that will ultimately decide which projects earn licenses.
But that would be our hope, because despite projections to the contrary, we believe a long, protracted casino battle will likely hurt Springfield in the long run.

No One Said This Was Going to Be Easy

The casino era in Massachusetts is only seven months old, but we wouldn’t blame anyone if they thought it was closer to seven years. It certainly seems that way.

Indeed, since passage of the legislation approving Las Vegas-style gambling last November, after years of debate and near misses, things have proceeded in slow motion, according to many observers, who, citing many apparent missteps and controversies, predict only more of the same for the immediate future.

Experts and media representatives assessing what’s happened thus far — including everything from questions about a conflict of interest involving local Gaming Commission member Bruce Stebbins (a former Springfield economic-development administrator) to the embarrassing resignation of interim Executive Director Stanley McGee only three days after he was hired — have used the phrase ‘rocky start’ early and often.

And while they’re right to some extent — the Gaming Commission has often looked the gang that couldn’t shoot straight — should we have expected anything else? This is a huge, complex industry Massachusetts is entering, where the stakes are enormous and the scrutiny is intense.

Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby might have been glossing things over when he recently told the Boston Globe, “I think it’s gone really well,” in reference to the start of the casino era, but in some respects he’s not far off base. Anyone who expected a smooth, fast ride was not thinking realistically. Crosby hit the nail on the head, actually, when he also told the Globe, “we have to learn to be comfortable with the fact that controversy is inevitable.”

And for evidence of that fact, one need look no further than the rebuke — that’s the only word to describe it — administered to Crosby by state Rep. Joseph Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat and key player in the fashioning of the casino bill last year, after Crosby put forth comments that simply suggested that the commission might license fewer than three casinos and a slots parlor.

The legislation that Wagner helped draft clearly states “up to three” casinos and a slots parlor, but he looked between the lines at Crosby’s comments and reasoned that, if only two casinos were licensed, then it would be the Western Mass. license that would be most in jeopardy, and he was right to come to that conclusion. And he quickly called out Crosby for saying the commission would do essentially what it was empowered to do — look at all the data and make decisions that make the most sense for everyone in the Commonwealth.

This is the way it’s going to be for the next two years, or however long it’s going to take the Gaming Commission to do its analysis and render its decisions. Every word, every step, every bit of conjecture is going to be scrutinized, analyzed, and probably overanalyzed.

And in many ways, all that is good because, despite the urgent need for jobs and revenue in this state — those are the reasons why this measure was passed in the first place — the goal here is not to get this job done fast, but to get it done right, with the understanding that ‘right’ is most certainly a relative term and there will never be agreement on what that actually means, and that’s part of what makes this compelling and maddening.

The rocky, bumpy start for the casino era — if those terms are even appropriate — has certainly been eye-opening. As if there were any doubt, we have been reminded that there is probably nothing that is going to come quickly or easily in the process of bring casino gaming to Massachusetts.

As Crosby said, we all have to get comfortable with the fact that controversy is inevitable — and unavoidable.

Making the Most of the Casino Era

That’s word we keep hearing with regard to casinos these days.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno used it liberally after the former Westinghouse site off Route 291 was acquired by a casino developer, and people started thinking about the possibility of the City of Homes as the site for a facility. Kevin Kennedy, the city’s recently named chief development officer, used it as well, as he talked with BusinessWest and other media outlets about his goals and aspirations moving forward.
And Stephen Crosby, named chair of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission last fall, and now known as the ‘casino czar’ in some quarters, put that term to work as he talked with us about how he hopes his panel may go well beyond regulating casinos, and also work with them to “maximize the public good” (see story, page 6).
All this talk of optimization is centered on the fact that the time for talking about whether expanded gaming is good for the state is over — casinos are now the law in the Commonwealth. Now, instead, it’s time to discuss how to make casinos good for the state. Or at least better than what many of the naysayers are predicting.
And we hope that this talk is considerably more than just rhetoric, because casinos are much more than a source of jobs and what amounts to a giant ATM machine for the state; they are a potentially disruptive force in the local economy.
Therefore, it’s incumbent upon the state, its casino commission, host communities, and impacted businesses and entertainment venues to not just ‘do’ casinos, but do them right.
Which is why we were encouraged by Crosby’s comments, specifically those about going beyond the role of regulator — although, as he said, his panel will certainly be that — and into the position of partner, or collaborator, with the gaming industry on the broad assignment of getting this right.
To date, so much of the focus has been on where the casinos will be located and which developer is to be chosen. And this is obviously important, especially in the communities where sites have been proposed — Springfield, Holyoke, Palmer, Brimfield, and others — and communities that neighbor those cities and towns.
But what’s potentially much more important is how the casinos will operate, and in what ways they can work with local communities to not simply minimize traffic problems or contribute economically to education systems or other civic priorities.
When Kennedy talked with BusinessWest in the Jan. 16 issue, he spoke of the vast potential of a casino located in the so-called North Blocks section of Springfield, just beyond the arch. Such a facility would be one of the key pieces in a downtown-revitalization strategy, he said, adding that a casino there would also benefit a soon-to-be-revitalized Union Station and its adjoining parking facility. Meanwhile, according to his vision, that North End casino would make use of downtown facilities, such as Symphony Hall, CityStage, and the Paramount for shows, thus spreading the wealth in both a figurative and literal sense.
The odds of such a proposal becoming reality are quite long, to use an industry term, but they are an example of the kind of outside-the-box, or, in this case, outside-the-casino thinking that will be needed in the months and years to come.
As the casino process moves forward, we need ‘optimize’ to become more than a word, more than a goal. It must be a guiding force as expanded gaming becomes reality in this state.