By G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD – At 8 p.m. on April 1, Stephen Crosby, the chair of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC), declared the public hearing was recessed for 15 minutes.
He and the other commissioners looked tired, as did the people sitting in the event room at the MassMutual Center. It had been a long haul since 4 p.m. when the meeting started.
At this point, most of the media had left, although Kari Njiiri of WFCR was still manning his post. City officials had departed, but MGM Springfield President Michael Mathis was still there with his colleagues.
Some of the relative handful of people who remained in order to speak remained in their seats, while others drifted into the lobby. Some came back after the break, while others decided to leave without testifying.
The public hearing was one of the last steps before the MGC will determine whether or not MGM should be awarded the sole casino license for western Massachusetts. Crosby said that if there was were still many people at 9 p.m., which is when the commission declared the meeting would end, another public hearing would convene on April 28.
Elaine Driscoll, the director of communications for the MGC told Reminder Publications that details for another meeting have not yet been set.
Crosby noted there were 130 people signed up to speak about MGM and its license application. He added that all speakers would be limited to five minutes – something the MGM officials apparently didn’t hear.
Several hundred people crowded into the room creating a standing room only condition. The audience included business owners, elected officials, representatives from non-profit groups, union members and area residents wishing to express their opinions.
Outside at the entrance of the MassMutual center on one side of the building MGM supporters held signs. Around the corner there was a small contingent protesting against the casino. They handed flyers that asked people to support the effort to repeal the casino legislation and directed people to www.repealthecasino.org.
Crosby called the meeting an opportunity for “one more bite at the apple” for both proponents and opponents.
For this reporter, though, the first hour and half of the meeting seemed not like “another bite of the apple,” but rather material much of which had been presented several times before.
Mayor Domenic Sarno spoke of the importance of the casino and its proposed $800 million investment in the city as well as its commitment for an annual $50 million in local procurement.
Sarno handed it off to Mathis who presented a lengthy Power Point presentation on the company, its history, its other properties and its goal, among other points.
He emphasized that MGM is much more than a gaming company.
“Those who call us a casino company are misguided,” he said as he displayed a pie chart to illustrate his point. The company’s operations in Las Vegas, NV. make more money in hotel rooms, food and beverage and other services than gaming.
Mathis showed a slide that included the location of the existing museums and other attractions in the city. He said MGM Springfield would “leverage” these establishments and attract more visitors.
“All they need is an engine and MGM is the engine,” he said.
Mathis said the key to the success of the venture is attracting mid-week business, conventions and meeting. He also said that 100,00 MGM customers of its Las Vegas locations live within 75 miles of Springfield and they would be a targeted audience.
After an hour and half, the MGM side of the presentation was still being presented. The employment and training polices of MGM were discussed and Mary Kay Wydra, the president of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau spoke of the partnership MGM has forged with that organization and how it will benefit the tourism industry through the region.
This reporter needed to cover another event. I returned just before 8 p.m. and the room was now three-quarters empty. Springfield resident David Ciampi was at the microphone reading a prepared statement.
Ciampi said in part, “I decided to staunchly support MGM’s initiative for Springfield at the very beginning for several reasons: one, MGM’s core corporate tradition, culture and philosophy; two, MGM’s ethical stance on environmental protection and conservation; three, my belief that MGM would be the catalyst for economic revitalization; and four MGM and its initiatives to support social change.”
His remarks, like those of every speaker after him drew polite applause.
I was told that I had missed the anti-casino speakers while I was at my other assignment.
Both Dora Robinson, president of the United Way of the Pioneer Valley and Rick Lee, director of the Red Cross Pioneer Valley Chapter, spoke in favor of the casino. Lee said that while he was not endorsing the casino, he said “I know a good corporate citizen when I sees one.”
He spoke of the Red Cross program “Boots to Business” that helps veterans find jobs that MGM has supported in Nevada.
Robinson spoke of the $4.7 million in support to non-profits from the employees of MGM in Nevada, Michigan and Mississippi.
Jim Boone, a Springfield resident who has been active in the historic preservation, asked the commission to hold MGM to a commitment to preserve at least the façades of some of the historic buildings on their proposed campus. He noted the former YWCA building on Howard Street should be saved and questioned why MGM would want to demolish the four-story Union House Hotel building built in 1847 with another four-story building.
As Boone spoke the commissioners read through a multi-page flyer prepared by the Springfield Preservation Trust describing the affected properties.
Boone believes that it is a case of “unwillingness instead of inability” on MGM’s part to address to preservation issues.
While waiting for her turn before the commission, Linda Bartlett, a member of the Maple High Six Corners Neighborhood Council, said she was going to say how she believes the casino would have “a positive domino effect in the neighborhoods.”
Maple High Six Corners is the nearest neighborhood to the MGMs’ location in the South End and it like the South End received much damage from the June 1, 2011 tornado. Barlett said she thinks the current housing construction in the neighborhood wouldn’t have taken place if “MGM hadn’t been on the horizon.”
She intends not to gamble at the casino, but to take advantage of the shopping and entertainment offerings.
At 8:45 p.m. the number of speakers had decreased dramatically. Crosby called out names of people who had given up on their need to testify. Perhaps they will sign up for the next and apparently final meeting.