SPRINGFIELD —, In 2011, a tornado crossed the Connecticut River into Springfield, cutting a swath of damage through one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. Mgm casino.
Today, the 14-acre area just south of downtown is considered the cornerstone of rebirth for this struggling city of 154,000, the site of a glitzy, $950 million MGM casino and entertainment complex. Set to open in the fall of 2018, the casino won't be a traditional, enclosed venue, but will instead feature outdoor spaces and attractions designed for those who don't gamble.
MGM will incorporate the nearby MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall and other existing venues into its plan, agreeing to underwrite multiple events for up to eight years after the opening of the complex.
"Springfield is going to become an entertainment capital," Kevin E. Kennedy, the city's chief development officer, said.
All the bustle just 30 miles to the north of Hartford —, squarely in the bull's-eye of MGM's 30- to 90-mile market —, has grabbed the attention of Connecticut's casinos, which have joined forces. Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun hope to open a satellite venue in Greater Hartford to dilute MGM's competitive threat. A consultant hired by the casinos estimates that 9,300 jobs in gaming that depend on industry revenue could be lost, if it isn't opened.
Beyond the casinos, some Hartford leaders also see a juggernaut on the horizon —, and how the city, and the surrounding area respond —, will make a vast difference to Greater Hartford entertainment venues. The development also is challenging the push for regional cooperation along the Hartford-Springfield corridor, and challenging how to work together in marketing campaigns while balancing the need to protect each city's need to attract money-spending visitors.
In Hartford, the Capital Region Development Authority is pushing for a $250 million makeover of the 40-year-old XL Center arena to make it more competitive. The funding didn't make it into Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed capital budget for 2017, and it isn't likely to resurface in this year's session. CRDA plans to press the issue again next year.
"There is an urgency for Hartford," Michael W. Freimuth, CRDA's executive director, said. "The events could not only impact the XL and the convention center but the hotels and restaurants that live off them. Events in Springfield will challenge Xfinity, Infinity, The Bushnell and as far south as the Oakdale."
He adds: "We all have to recognize what is happening here. It is all very real."
MGM still needs final approvals from Springfield and the Massachusetts Gaming Commission but work has been underway for months. The vision is a grand one: a casino floor covering nearly 3 acres, with an estimated 3,000 slot machines, 75 table games, a poker room and a high-limit area. The plans also include three banquet rooms, the largest encompassing 12,000 square feet, a seven-screen movie theater, a 10-lane bowling alley, nearly two dozen shops, restaurants and bars, rooftop gardens, and a 250-room hotel.
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A massive parking garage spanning two city blocks will accommodate 3,400 vehicles.
All has not gone smoothly, however. Last fall, MGM made major changes to the plan that angered local officials, including the elimination of a 25-story hotel tower, as the project's costs —, all privately financed —, jumped from $800 million to $950 million. MGM also pushed back the expected opening by a year because of work planned nearby for I-91, a major route to the casino and entertainment complex.
Kennedy acknowledges the power MGM will have in drawing visitors to Springfield, but he says it doesn't have to put Hartford at odds with its neighbor to the north, and could bolster regional marketing efforts.
"You can go to a Yard Goats game," Kennedy said, referring to Hartford's new minor league baseball team. "And then come to Springfield to gamble."
Massachusetts legalized casino gambling in 2011, and two years later, MGM was chosen by Springfield as its developer. The field also included such powerhouses as Hard Rock International, which operates nearly a dozen casinos, and Penn National Gaming Inc., with 22. MGM runs 14 casinos worldwide.
When MGM executives first visited Springfield, the damage from the tornado was still fresh. Blue tarps draped many of the buildings, some of them a century or more old. The image was a potent one, leading MGM to register Blue Tarp reDevelopment LLC as one of its development entities for the project.
MGM purchased more than a dozen properties for the project, and it will demolish about half of the buildings on them to make way for the new complex. Still, MGM has incorporated some historic structures into its designs.
The oldest part of the former state armory, built in 1895 with centurion-like granite and brownstone turrets, will likely become an upscale restaurant. Nearby, the brick, Gothic Revival-style French Congregationalist Church, dating to 1887, will be moved two city blocks this spring and be used as retail space. MGM will save the facades of the old Union Hotel on Main Street and the Beaux Arts-style United Electric Co. building on State Street.
Both the armory and the church will flank a plaza that will feature a rejuvenated park near a skating rink in the winter and a farmers' market in the summer.
On a recent afternoon, the casino site was teeming with activity. On Howard Street, an excavator clawed at an old school building, rubble tumbling to the ground. About 100 yards away, workers removed decorative terra cotta panels and other architectural elements from a 1900s-era building that will be demolished to make way for a plaza. The facade will be re-created nearby for the complex's "entertainment block," a compromise with those who wanted the original building saved.
The facades of new structures along Main and State streets were designed using such materials as clay brick, porcelain brick and carved stone, mimicking buildings built decades earlier downtown.
"We wanted MGM to be part of Springfield and not Springfield a part of MGM," Kennedy said.
The design represents a larger shift in the gaming industry, experts say, away from the traditional casino where patrons park and stay in one place. It also recognizes that casinos are rapidly diversifying beyond gambling, working to draw younger patrons, they say.
"You definitely see that in Las Vegas," David Schwartz, director at the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, said. "Investment in non-gaming makes a lot of sense. Thirty years ago, just having a place to gamble was a real novelty. That's not the case any more."
Connecticut's casinos, facing intensifying competition in an increasingly crowded Northeastern market, are pushing in the same direction —, Foxwoods with its outlet mall and Mohegan Sun with its concerts and shopping.
Schwartz said blending into an urban environment provides a more comfortable fit.
"It's a better neighbor and not just a box of slot machines," Schwartz said. "They are making it an overall entertainment destination, not just a place to gamble. That's a big part of it."
Schwartz adds: "They're not building a performing arts center because there is already a performing arts center."
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Last fall, city officials in Springfield bristled at MGM's plans to downsize its casino development, expressing frustration that MGM did not tell them it was cutting the size of the project by 14 percent. The reduction was disclosed in a regulatory filing.
In addition to less retail and restaurant space, the bowling alley and the movie theater were scaled back. A 25-story hotel tower was replaced by one reduced to six stories arranged along Main Street.
Springfield city officials are still considering those changes and the Massachusetts Gaming Commission's is also needed. Approval is expected and for the city, the incentive is compelling: $25 million in annual payments for 40-plus years, totaling more than $1 billion, 2,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent positions, and investments in the redevelopment of the city's Union Station and the construction of downtown market-rate apartments.
Antonio Caputo, owner of the Red Rose Pizzeria, has been watching the progress from his restaurant at the corner of Main and Howard. Initially, he was opposed to the MGM plan.
"We make a good living," said Caputo, who projects his business will hit close to $5 million in sales this year. "Money? We love our business. We're emotionally attached to our property."
MGM wanted to buy the Red Rose property because it sits right along the complex's Main Street perimeter, but Caputo said he wasn't interested. In addition to the restaurant, there are four contiguous storefronts. Now, the restaurant plans to expand into one of the vacant storefronts, hoping the development of the MGM complex will boost his business, Caputo said.
"You know, in the beginning, we weren't too happy," said Caputo, the second generation to run the 52-year-old family-owned business. "When you're doing good, you don't want anything to change. So we were anti-casino. But now, they are coming. Let's face it, they are coming. So, we've warmed up to the idea of being a good neighbor. And maybe we can help each other."