Billed as the largest single-phase commercial development in western Massachusetts history, the $960 million MGM resort casino in Springfield is about to open its doors to the public. As with any big complicated project there were a lot of twists and turns along the way.
When Massachusetts opened its doors to Las Vegas-style gambling in 2011 with a law that authorized the licensing of one resort casino in the western part of the state, the mantra “why not Springfield?” was heard from the people responsible for bringing economic opportunities to the state’s third-largest city long plagued by high unemployment and poverty.
While as many as six casino companies initially took a look around Springfield, MGM had its gaze elsewhere.
But after realizing that getting the state to build an access road to that remote corner of Brimfield was not going to happen, MGM Chairman Jim Murran looked to Springfield, a city he said he remembered visiting for rock concerts during his college days in Connecticut in the 1980s.
MGM’s proposal was to build a casino on a three-block area of downtown Springfield where many buildings had been damaged by a tornado in 2011. Two other companies, Ameristar and Penn National Gaming, also pitched casinos in Springfield. Ameristar abandoned its plan, leaving MGM and Penn National head-to-head to see which could offer the most lucrative deal to the city.
Mayor Domenic Sarno announced MGM was the winner.
In July 2013, Springfield voters ratified the host community agreement between the city and MGM by a 58-42 percent margin.
After voters in West Springfield and Palmer rejected casino projects, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in June 2014 voted to award the western region license to MGM.
Opponents of casino gambling, who had successfully kept it out of Massachusetts for decades, had not given up. Led by former state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger they got a question on the November 2014 ballot that if passed would have again outlawed casinos.
The vote went the way of the casino companies after an expensive campaign that focused on the number of jobs the industry would bring to Massachusetts.
A few months later, MGM held a ceremonial ground-breaking.
Almost immediately MGM ran into a literal roadblock. A massive project was getting underway to replace the highway deck on the elevated portion of Interstate 91 through downtown Springfield.
Rather than open the casino with half the highway shut down, MGM Springfield President Mike Mathis said the prudent course was to delay the opening for a full year.
The old expression ”time is money” proved true. During the one-year delay the costs for the project escalated leading MGM to make changes. Gone from the plans, suddenly, was a 25-story glass façade hotel tower. There was other shrinkage in areas MGM said were mostly behind-the-scenes operations.
The downsizing upset many including the project’s chief public cheerleader: Mayor Sarno.
Speculation began and rumors spread that MGM was no longer interested in building in Springfield. That it was worried about the threat of competition from a proposed Indian casino just across the state line in Connecticut. There were fears Springfield would be left with a big hole in the ground where buildings had already been torn down to make way for the casino construction that had not yet started in earnest.
MGM President Bill Hornbuckle had to jet in from Las Vegas to give public assurances.
When construction cranes finally showed up on the city’s skyline and steel started rising out of the big hole in the ground, labor leader Fiorre Grassetti said the promise of 2,000 jobs for the building trades was being realized.
While the 2-million-square-foot complex was under construction for two years, MGM set about to develop a workforce for the new industry in the region. The company invested in a brand new culinary training center at Holyoke Community College, promoted new hospitality courses at Cambridge College, and supplied instructors including MGM Vice President of Table Games Robert Westerfield for a new school to teach dealers and other casino game operators.
The MGM casino, however things ultimately work out for the gambling industry in Massachusetts, is a major chapter in Springfield’s history.
Sarno firmly believes it has already led to a redefining of Springfield where he says more than $3 billion in development has occurred since 2011.