When casinos were legalized in Massachusetts three years ago, the mayor of Springfield set off on a high-stakes bid to land a destination resort casino that could transform the city’s economically depressed downtown. Now, potentially within months of a groundbreaking for an $800 million casino, the project is in jeopardy.
Springfield Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy says when he and Mayor Domenic Sarno first talked about the strategy for getting a casino built in the city, they told each other they would remain optimistic and prepared for whatever hurdles came along.
" Anybody who thought an $800 million project was going to be easy was sadly mistaken," Kennedy said Tuesday.
The fate of what has been described as the largest economic development project in the city’s history will be in the hands of Massachusetts voters in November. The state’s highest court in a unanimous decision announced Tuesday ruled that a question can go on the ballot asking voters to repeal the 2011 law that authorized the licensing of up to three resort casinos and one slots machine parlor.
The ruling came less than two weeks after the Massachusetts Gaming Commission awarded MGM a provisional license for the entertainment industry giant’s Springfield project. Hopes for a groundbreaking later this summer were dashed by Tuesday’s court decision.
Penn National Gaming, which was awarded the lone slots parlor license in February said it is going “full speed ahead” with construction at a harness racetrack in Plainville. Penn, in a statement, said it was confident Massachusetts voters would keep the casino law.
MGM said it risks $200 million if it starts construction in Springfield. Sarno does not fault MGM for waiting.
" We are very optimistic for November. But this delays shovels going in the ground, bricks and mortar for a construction season."
MGM’s development agreement with Springfield promises to create 2,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs. The city would receive $25 million annually, and MGM has agreed to fund public safety enhancements, parks improvements, and other amenities.
City Councilor Tim Rooke said Springfield has a lot to lose if voters in November ban casinos.
" I think you will hear a very long exhaust in the city of Springfield which would be the hopes of all the residents and businesses dashed once again by the government."
City Councilor Bud Williams said there does not appear to be a “plan b” if the casino is not built.
" I know they put a lot of eggs in this basket, and I'm the old school that says don't put a lot of eggs in one basket. I hope the mayor and Kevin Kennedy have a backup plan. Hopefully, if this doesn't go we can tee up what they have."
Kennedy, the city’s development director, said the casino is just one part of more than $2.48 billion in construction and economic development projects that were either recently completed or scheduled to start soon.
" We were taking advantage of 15 acres in our downtown ( for the casino) to generate a huge amount of economic activity. The idea that is going to affect economic development in the rest of the city is just not correct," said Kennedy.
City Council President Mike Fenton said the overall economic climate in Springfield is improving and the city is seen as being “business friendly.”
" There would be off-spin associated with the casino that we would lose if the project is not built, but I don't think it is going to stall our progress," said Fenton.
MGM on Wednesday held two previously scheduled meetings for businesses interested in supplying goods and services to the casino. MGM has promised to purchase $50 million annually from Springfield-area companies.