By Chris Maza
BOSTON – The Massachusetts Gaming Commission voted 4-0 to designate Longmeadow a surrounding community to the proposed MGM Springfield casino project, but denied Hampden that label at a hearing on Feb. 18 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
Commissioner Bruce Stebbins recused himself from discussion on Longmeadow and Hampden.
The commission cited the traffic analysis data collected by MGM, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and City Point Planners, the commission’s consultant, as the primary reason for the designation.
Longmeadow Town Manager Stephen Crane told Reminder Publications the commission’s decision validated the work the town put in while developing its case for surrounding community status.
“We would like to thank the Gaming Commission, and especially Ombudsman John Ziemba, for all their work in considering our petition. We had felt that we had made a compelling argument to the commission and that our focus on knowable and predictable impacts, predominantly traffic and public safety, was what was intended by the gaming act,” he said. “It is clear from the discussion at the hearing that the commission agreed with our approach.”
With the designation, the town now has 30 days to negotiate a surrounding community agreement with MGM. If a settlement is not reached within 30 days, the matter would go to binding arbitration.
“We look forward to engaging in additional dialogue with MGM and reaching a negotiated agreement that protects the interests of Longmeadow residents,” Crane said.
MGM also released a statement in which MGM Springfield incoming President Michael Mathis said, “Through this designation, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission has asked us to continue our conversation with the town of Longmeadow. We respect that decision, and remain interested in having Longmeadow join the six neighboring communities with which we already have agreements. We are hopeful that the next 30 days will include fact-based and data-driven discussions that will result in a fair agreement.”
While the commission designated Longmeadow, Commissioner James McHugh took issue with positions taken by both sides during the ongoing negotiations between the gaming company and Longmeadow.
“The notion that a gaming operation is not responsible for increasing a deficiency in the level of services within a community strikes me as untenable,” he said of his perception of MGM’s stance. He added that Longmeadow’s argument that MGM should be responsible for other effects that could occur due to the revitalization of a neighboring community was “equally specious.”
With that said, he felt the evidence in the traffic analysis was enough to merit the designation and Commissioner Gayle Cameron also called the traffic data “persuasive.”
Commission chair Stephen Crosby called the decision “a close call,” but the “potentially significantly adverse” traffic impacts warranted the designation.
The commission heard from Mark Vander Linden, director of Research and Problem Gambling, and Lynn Sweet from LDS Consulting, who discussed issues of housing, education and public safety and found little in the way of impacts to the surrounding community applicants.
Addressing Longmeadow specifically, Sweet said she found no evidence that would support the town’s assertion of need for funding from MGM for additional code compliance personnel and that because the school-age population is shrinking, it can be assumed that the schools would have the capacity to absorb any influx of children.
She also noted that it is anticipated that only 10 percent of the jobs would be filled by those from outside of the area.
Rick Moore, engineer for City Point Planners, however, said nearly 23 percent of casino traffic would go through Longmeadow via Route 5 and Interstate 91. While some lighted intersections on Route 5 could maintain their current levels of service with an adjustment to traffic light intervals, he said those changes would require a more sophisticated system than the one currently utilized in Longmeadow. “Signal equipment is a significant investment,” Moore noted.
He added that both the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission have identified the lane drop from three lanes to two on I-91 in Longmeadow as a point of major congestion that could cause traffic to divert onto Route 5.
“The uncertainty gives us enough cause to say that there is a possible adverse effect to Longmeadow,” Moore said.
While traffic was an area of concern, Moore added that water and sewer service in Longmeadow would not be affected.
Springfield Water and Sewer, a regional service to which Longmeadow belongs, has a 40 million gallon per day capacity. It is currently using 35 million gallons. The addition of a casino would only add 200,000 gallons per day, equaling only 5 percent of that remaining capacity. Springfield Water and Sewer also has a 70 million gallon wastewater capacity and is utilizing 50 million. A casino would only equal 1 percent of the remaining capacity.
Hampden joined Northampton as the Western Massachusetts communities whose applications were denied because the commission felt the data did not illustrate any significant negative impacts.
Moore said that data suggests that during peak Friday hours, Allen Street, the most direct route into Springfield and Sumner Avenue, which runs into the city’s South End, would see an increase of 29 vehicles, representing a 4.7 percent hike compared to the normal 540 trips both ways in an hour.
However, even with approximately 570 cars, the roadway would only be at roughly 16 percent of its actual capacity of 3,600 cars per hour.
“With this in mind we can come to the reasonably straightforward conclusion that there would be no significant traffic-related impact,” Moore said.
Regarding the decision not to designate Hampden or Northampton, Mathis said, “We thank the Massachusetts Gaming Commission for its thoughtful process and are pleased that it agreed with our assessment of these communities in relation to our property. We have dedicated considerable time and resources to understanding the region and how MGM Springfield fits into it. We strongly believe that all of Western Massachusetts will benefit from a rejuvenated Springfield and we look forward to that reality.”