For Now, Springfield's Not Sweating the (Possible) Casino Competition from East Windsor

To get a sense of how large the new MGM casino looms in discussions of Springfield’s future, consider where it’s being built.

The casino is rising right in the middle of Springfield’s gritty downtown. Three city blocks have been transformed into one vast construction site, packed with hard-hatted workers and scaffolding stretching toward the sky.

Given the central role that MGM Springfield is expected to play in a Springfield renaissance, it's a fitting location.

"I’m a Springfield native," said Seth Stratton, MGM Springfield's vice president and legal counsel. "I was born and raised in Springfield. I honestly believe that in five to 10 years, people will not recognize downtown."

In a conference room high above the city, Stratton gazes down at the project and points out interesting details, like the fact that that it’s being built on parcels that became available after a devastating tornado hit back in 2011. And he lists all the ways the casino is expected to transform his hometown, including 3,000 new jobs, annual payments to the city of $25 million, and $50 million in annual spending on local good and services.

"We’re really excited about the craft brewery movement, and there’s a lot of brewers in this area we’d love to bring in to our project," he said. "The farm-to-table movement is huge, it’s big out here in Western Mass. We’re going to look to capitalize on that as well."

Also on MGM Springfield’s to-do list: scheduling and underwriting a dozen live entertainment events around the city every year—and running the local arena, the MassMutual Center, which is right across the street.

"We realized it’d be really great to have some strong synergies," Stratton said of the decision to take over management of the Mass. Convention Center Authority property. "All of the employees there will become MGM employees."

Given the scale of those civic ambitions, you might expect some anxiety over plans to build a competing casino in East Windsor, Connecticut, just 13 miles to the south. But Stratton says he’s unconcerned.

"It’s a convenience casino," he said, "and ours is a destination resort casino."

That might not do justice to the East Windsor proposal, which comes from the tribes behind Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, and still hasn't been finalized.

"The casino that they’re trying to build in East Windsor is about 200,000 square feet of casino space," said Gary Trask, the managing editor of Casino City Press, which covers the casino industry nationwide. "It’s certainly not a mom-and-pop store. It’s not quite as big as Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, but it’s a pretty large-scale casino."

But Trask adds that with a roster of amenities that includes a movie theater, a day spa, and a bowling alley, MGM Springfield will be on the cutting edge of the casino business.

"The Las Vegas strip, just last year or the year before, for the first time, had more non-gaming revenue that gaming revenue," Trask said. "It’s the trend in the industry."

According to Rick Sullivan, the head of the West Mass Economic Development Council, that approach is already piquing the interest of convention groups considering Springfield as a destination.

"They like the fact that the restaurants and some of the other retail options are street-facing, so you’d be able to go in, use the restaurants and shop, and not necessarily have to go on to the floor of the casino," Sullivan said. "It’s a very new model."

You can also sense that enthusiasm on Springfield's streets. Downtown, a stone's throw from MGM Springfield's corporate offices, Springfield resident Al Nardi says the project has already transformed the mood in the city.

"There's an excitement that's brewing, and it just keeps getting better," he said.

Daryn Hill, also of Springfield, says he's eager to become a casino employee.

"I’ll clean bathrooms as long as they pay, as long as I’m a part of it," Hill said.

Of course, it will be years before we know whether Springfield’s big-time bet on MGM yields the expected payoff—and whether the East Windsor casino, if it's built, constitutes serious competition or not.

In the meantime, when MGM Springfield finally opens—next year, if all goes according to plan—the deeply held conviction that it's a boon for the city should be extremely good for business.