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Zoning District Approved For MGM Casino Allowing Demolition Work To Begin

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WAMC
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MGM  has secured approvals from Massachusetts casino industry regulators and the city of Springfield’s legislative body that allow it to demolish buildings and do other work to prepare the site where the company proposes to build a $950 million casino. After almost a year of delays, there could soon be significant construction work on the project.

The Springfield City Council approved a zoning overlay district that defines the boundaries of the roughly 3-square-block area in the city’s South End where the resort casino is proposed. The 11-0 vote Monday night followed last week’s unanimous approval by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission of MGM’s plans to mitigate environmental impacts.

Both state and city officials stressed the votes do not endorse controversial design changes MGM has proposed in the last few months.

" It is a procedural step, a good step that allows MGM to do site work in anticipation of  ( building) their casino in the downtown, " said Springfield City Council President Mike Fenton. " It does not bind us in anyway, shape, or form to one particular  design or another."

Mike Fenton announced plans to schedule a series of public meetings in mid-to-late-January to take up the site plan for the project, permanent street closures in the casino zone, and amendments to the city’s host community agreement with MGM.

" They (MGM) have authority to build nothing right now," said Fenton.

MGM has proposed changes to the project that include building a six-story hotel rather than a 25-story glass façade tower, and reducing the total square footage of the development by roughly 10 percent. MGM officials say most of the changes are being driven by an effort to rein in skyrocketing construction costs.  The budget for the project has increased $150 million since the gaming commission approved the license for it 18 months ago.

In a series of public presentations recently, MGM officials have tried to alleviate concerns about the changes. Company officials say the downsizing will not impact the jobs and revenue they’ve pledged the project will deliver.

Fenton remains skeptical.

" What today was about was showing that MGM and the city are excited about moving forward with the downtown casino. The disagreement remains over what that casino looks like," said Fenton.  " I favor the design and bill of goods we were sold three years ago and the people voted on."

 MGM held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the casino last March, but since then not much construction activity has happened. City Councilor Kenneth Shea said people need to see progress with the project.

"  There are people out there who think MGM is going to bail out. There are all kinds of rumors. When people see actual construction going on, buildings coming down, the site getting ready, the public will have a lot more confidence than they do now," said Shea.

There are 19 buildings in the casino district that are to be demolished, or altered in some way, to make way for the new construction that is to include the casino, hotel, and a 3,000 space parking garage.

The casino overlay district approval did not come without some controversy. Jeff Burstein, an attorney who co-owns a building adjacent to the casino district, complained the changes will harm his property.

" It means they are zoning everything around for a different use other than ours. They can do things we can't. It is relaxed zoning, said Burstein.

City officials say the concerns of abutters about the casino impact can be addressed when the council takes up the proposed site plan and street closures.  

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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