The city of Springfield finds itself the center of intense competition for the lone casino license that will be issued in western Massachusetts. Questions are being raised about the casino selection process city officials are about to undertake. WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill reports
A two phase process is expected to launch Wednesday when the city of Springfield will formally invite casino operators to enter a competition that officials anticipate will culminate in just 8 months with a binding voter referendum on whether to locate a gambling establishment in the city. At least four casino operators are expected to compete for the rights to develop a project valued at more than half-a –billion dollars.
Phase one of the process, outlined earlier this week by Mayor Domenic Sarno will scrutinize the finances and experiences of the casino operators. Phase two, which would begin just a few weeks later involves a detailed analysis of the specific projects with a focus on how the city would benefit from a stand point of jobs created, economic spin offs, and other factors. By mid-December, the mayor, under this timetable, would pick one or more companies to negotiate development terms, known as a host community agreement.
State Senator Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, a principle author of the state’s casino law, said it is a major undertaking for Springfield.
Voters need to approve a specific project linked to the host community agreement before a casino operator can apply to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission for a license.
Mayor Sarno, in explaining the selection process , during meetings this week with city councilors and neighborhood activists reportedly described it as “ a mini-marathon, not a sprint”. Sarno said he’s confident the city can perform its due diligence in the time he’s allotted.
Just one of the four casino operators competing in Springfield, Ameristar, actually owns land in the city. Ameristar paid $16 million for a former industrial site on the city’s east side. But the company has yet to pay a $400,000 non-refundable application fee to the state gaming commission. Ameristar vice president Troy Stremming said it’s because of uncertainty over Springfield’s selection process.
Ameristar has raised the issue of a possible conflict of interest involving the Chicago law firm hired by the Sarno administration as the city’s casino consultant. The firm, Shefsky and Froelich is a registered lobbyist in Illinois for MGM Resorts International, and Penn National Gaming, two of the other companies pursuing projects in Springfield.
Springfield city officials say they were aware of relationships before hiring Shefsky and Froelich and are confident the consultant will provide unbiased advice.
Mayor Sarno has pledged the casino selection process will be an open, fair, and robust competition.
Officials in the town of Palmer continue to work toward negotiating a casino development agreement with Mohegan Sun. The company has been pursuing a project in Palmer for several years. Palmer town officials are planning a visit to Mohegan Sun’s Connecticut resort for a behind the scenes look at the operation.