By Carley Dangona
BOSTON – With the very real possibility of the MGM Springfield casino becoming a reality, two longtime West Springfield businesses pleaded their cases to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) for consideration as Impacted Live Entertainment Venues (ILEV).
The Eastern States Exposition, a nonprofit, and the Majestic Theater participated in the petition hearing that took place on Jan. 28. Each venue had 15 minutes to explain the effects a casino would have on the ability to book performers and maintain patron attendance. The MGC will designate the ILEV on Feb. 18.
If designated an ILEV, a venue will begin negotiations with MGM Springfield, creating the opportunity for the impacted businesses to receive compensation to offset any profit loss.
Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States, said, “We have a long history of providing one of a kind, irreplaceable agricultural and educational programming. [The possibility of the MGM casino] is one of the most daunting challenges we’ve ever faced.”
Hard Rock New England had proposed a resort casino for the Gate 9 area of the Eastern States, but the option was rejected by West Springfield voters in a special election on Sept. 10, 2013.
During an interview with Reminder Publications in March of 2013, Cassidy explained why the organization sought to establish a casino within its boundaries.
“My concern is if the casino goes to the other side of the river and they build the slightest convention center, we’d be out of business,” Cassidy stated. “These buildings – I don’t know how much longer they would last. I think that the fairgrounds we know as the ESE would be dramatically diminished, if not imperiled for the future.”
During the MGC hearing, Cassidy explained that the yearlong events are “precariously balanced by the success of the [Big E] fair.” He stated 93 live entertainment and 53 events at Storrowton Village had taken place in 2013 alone, made possible by the 2012 Big E’s success.
“We were regrettably forced to appear,” Cassidy said, stating that no one from MGM Springfield had reached out to the Eastern States to discuss the matter. “The Eastern States Exposition needs your assistance. We play a role that desires special attention.”
Cassidy commented that the MGM casino “significantly threatened” the well-being of the Eastern States. He explained that since the casinos were built in Connecticut, the Eastern States has had difficulty booking acts such as Destiny’s Child and Carrie Underwood that it once featured, due to blackout dates and the cost of obtaining such acts.
Attorney Jed Nosal of Brown Rudnick LLP, representing MGM Springfield said, “The ILEV is designed to protect use or overuse of market power. The statutes don’t protect the convention businesses or trade show business.”
Nosal noted that MGM will not impose radius restrictions or blackout dates for booking shows and outlined that fact in its gaming license application. “We don’t intend to engage in that practice,” he said. Nosal also cited the fact that MGM would be utilizing existing venues in the area such as the MassMutual Center and CityStage, rather than creating its own venue.
“It’s a nonprofit, but it’s also a big business as well,” Nosal said of the Eastern States.
Attorney Mark Cress from Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas, LLP, representing the Eastern States said, “The Eastern States Exposition didn’t choose to be here – it’s entitled to the protection.”
Cress said, “The Majestic is too small, the Eastern States Exposition is too big,” criticizing MGM’s objection to both venues applying for ILEV status.
Danny Eaton, producing director, and Todd Kadis, treasurer, of the Majestic Theater addressed the MGC as well.
Eaton stated his main concern as the fact that MGM can offer amenities and discounts the Majestic cannot, such as free parking with a trolley ride shuttle and discounted meals at participating restaurants with a ticket stub.
He said that no one from MGM had contacted the Majestic until after it filed the ILEV petition. According to Eaton, CityStage is 2.3 miles away from the Majestic.
“We compete for the market in Western Massachusetts,” he said. “We do want MGM to succeed, but not at our expense.”
Nosal responded, “The Majestic is not an appropriate designation under the ILEV. The statutes are not designed to protect every venue.” He stated that MGM did not feel the Majestic’s petition met the requirements for designation as an ILEV.
Nosal continued, “[It’s] a wonderful theater that has a strong subscription-based audience. It focuses on local talent and is really very different than the entertainment offered at CityStage. It’s really very much, from our perspective, apples and oranges.”