Editorial: Springfield in a Post-Casino Referendum World…
The question of whether casinos are coming to Massachusetts and Springfield in particular is decided. Voters last week, as expected, retained the law establishing the “resort-style” facilities by a margin more or less consistent with polling. We opposed the law, opined against MGM Springfield and supported the repeal. We do not envision supporting any further efforts to undermine the law.
Relevant boards and commissions reviews and actions on the project are proper, but we cannot support delaying tactics that are purely dilatory or vexatious. Instead, we should move past this law, come together as a city and region and work to ensure the future of Springfield. We can control that fate, even MGM’s success or failure is out of our hands.
Our opinion on the end result of MGM’s coming to Springfield is unchanged. We continue to fear the economic vacuum the facility, unable to attract faraway tourists, will cause. Saturation, whether internal to Massachusetts or brought on by further competition in New York or even Connecticut, will, in our view, plague the casino sooner or later. The casino is coming regardless, so our concern now is ensuring history does not repeat itself.
A fundamental problem with MGM or other casino proposals, is that the underlying purpose always seemed at least as much about relieving property owners of the burden of their investments as it seemed to create economic development. This process has played out more overtly as the former School Department building project ground to a halt and the landlord of JT’s Sports pub jacked up rents. Difficult as it is, ceasing to cater to powerful landholders, indeed, is an essential change itself.
But the real problem with the casino as economic manna from heaven is that is fits Springfield’s pattern of placing its fate in the hands of yet another, single mega-project that will deliver us from stagnation. Historically, such hopes have almost always given way to disappointment.
Bay State West ultimately fizzled, sucking in a great deal of downtown’s retail oxygen only to pass out as a shopping hub later. Monarch Place filled Forbes & Wallace’s hole, but did not stem downtown’s decline. The MassMutual Center remains too small and services too poor an area compared to venues in Hartford and Boston. The new Hall of Fame is a success, but it is an island, surrounded by the river and I-91. Even by this metric, the Hall’s impact has never rippled out. The York Street jail site lies fallow.
The casino could meet a similar fate, so we must move on and seek to inoculate the city from the downsides, but also strengthen it so gaming does not become another economic development crutch.
It is unclear exactly how much city officials sense that the impending casino is as much a challenge as it appears a “blessing.” City bureaucrats have seemed, at times, less sanguine about the casino. That’s good. Concern, not alarm, describes how Administrative and Financial Officer T.J. Plante viewed casino repeal. He has consistently highlighted the need for other economic development projects in the city, like a new big box retailer in the Eastfield area.
Even Mayor Domenic Sarno, Mr. Casino himself, appears aware that, at a minimum, casinos are not a panacea for the city. He, too, has highlighted other projects—some of which have been millennia in the making—like Union Station. A new, effective transportation hub due to receive new service will do more for Springfield and downtown than the casino could.
However, far more is needed. There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way politicians and economic development officials, both city and state, approach Springfield. Single mega projects have proven good short-term political boosts for elected leaders, but have no track record of righting the city because they do not actually change the status quo.
The forceful push to get a railcar manufacturer in the city, is a rare example of when it works, but that is because it flips the script on industrial decline in Springfield. Unlike the casino, it could credibly spawn employers who will feed the facility.
But revival of cities is not premised on things that grab headlines. For all the monumental college and health care construction in Boston, the real story, if one that has traipsed too far into gentrification, is the revival of neighborhoods like Charlestown, Dorchester, East Boston, Fenway and Jamaica Plain or across the river Cambridge and Somerville. These are places people, particularly younger people, want to live and provide the amenities and services that make city life enjoyable.
True, the area needs more jobs, but those who prefer an uban lifestyle and are employed in the Pioneer Valley often choose Amherst, Easthampton or Northampton. The solution is not to clone those communities, but to enact policy that will give Springfield and its rich, diverse neighborhoods their own flavor, one that is attractive and not merely a last resort.
We must pursue and enact policies to encourage this now or not only will the worst fears of casino opponents come true, but our city’s civic life, budget and landscape will decay further. Some of changes needed face staunch political opposition. Even after narrowly surviving the political might of the city’s development interests, the new zoning ordinance is just a beginning. Infrastructure improvements—both within the city and connecting it to the North, South, East and West—must go hand-in-hand with adoption of modern urban planning policy.
We have to come together, city government, politicians, business leaders, activists—pro-casino and not—and think big, perhaps by thinking small. The emphasis has to be about the livability of the city. Small things like bike lanes and larger efforts like encouraging and promoting small businesses that appeal to modern city dwellers are a start. We can make sure the city has amenities its college students can enjoy so they may be more inclined to stay here if they land a local job.
This change was always imperative, but is made more so by the survival of the casino law. At best, the casino will revive the South End, if in a way nostalgia does not recall. It will do little to revive other neighborhoods. At worst, if the casino fails to meet expectations, we will be no better off than we were before the casino law was a gleam in Robert DeLeo’s eye.
Stakeholders in the city, region and state have to push to change how business is done here if our home city is to be made vital again. If not, we may get our casino, but only to add it to our white elephant menagerie along Interstate 91.