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Analysis: Wall Street Considers Main Street in Springfield…

UPDATED 8/17/17 8:25PM: For a Correction. The top photo originally misidentified 1211 Avenue of the Americas.

“We see you!” 1211 Avenue of the Americas, second from right, is home of The Wall Street Journal and other Murdoch Properties. (via wikipedia)

Not much links MGM Springfield’s construction site with 1211 Avenue of the Americas in New York.  The former is feted as evidence of “momentum” in Springfield, like many a big project before it. The latter, home to The Wall Street Journal, is one of triplet towers near Rockefeller Center in Midtown’s skyscraper forest. But that distance did not stop The Journal from seeing clearly into Springfield’s situation.

The Journal’s visit to Springfield, however, did not come by way of Gotham. Rather, the paper’s Boston correspondent wrote the story. This was ironic as Springfield has poorer transit connection to its capital than New York. In fact, a key point in The Journal’s story was Springfield’s  tepid economic recovery and relative isolation from major metropolises.

The malaise afflicting Springfield is not unique. The Journal compared the city’s situation to other Northeastern and Midwestern cities. In Ohio, for example, Cleveland and Cincinnati play the Boston to Canton or Dayton’s Springfield. But unlike those cities, the solution for Springfield—better transportation—is eminently doable.  Politics is throwing up roadblocks.

Lesser still trying to string together a commonwealth. (created via wikipedia & Lesser campaign images)

State Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, has attempted to start what would likely be a years-long effort to establish better rail service to Boston. Only one, slow train connects Beantown to Springfield now. But Lesser’s efforts has been repeatedly stymied by entrenched local interests and politicians, Beacon Hill’s Byzantine process, and a smiling but eastward-facing governor.

Ex-industrial cities like Springfield are under a microscope following last year’s election results. Nothing Donald Trump prescribed will revive such places, which swung heavily toward him, but that doesn’t change the need to do so. Indeed, Hampden County and Western Mass generally, followed Massachusetts’s rejection of Trump despite some deviation in the suburbs.

As important as The Journal’s manifest focus on connecting to Boston, another key point more subtly bolstered the paper’s case. The Journal effectively looked past MGM Springfield and the potentially more significant CRRC railcar plant. These were, rightly, not ignored. Yet, any reader unamiliar with Springfield could see current developments are woefully inadequate.

Sometimes it feels like city officials like Mayor Domenic Sarno present a Potemkin city. The spectacle of cranes, hovering over Springfield for the first time in years, fits nicely in a narrative of rebirth. Splashy Republican articles or television-ready milestones in MGM’s construction contribute to the case.

Do you see what we see?… (WMassP&I)

This narrative is not false, but it is not the whole truth. On its face, there is little reason to doubt MGM’s progress right now. The company’s candor at a recent Springfield City Council meeting was reassuring, especially compared to when it deleted its hotel skyscraper. However, issues not wholly within MGM’s control, like the spillover effect in downtown, draw question marks like moths to a flame.

One example is MassMutual putting Tower Square on the market. Despite idle speculation on WWLP and in The Republican or Business West, this does not inspire confidence. The life insurance giant’s divestment of real estate properties is not the concern. Its peers have been unloading real estate portfolios for decades. In a statement to WMassP&I, MassMutual suggested somewhat dispassionately—“an increase in economic development” in downtown Springfield prompted the sale.

Rather, the concern is Marriott’s exit after decades downtown. A Marriott rep told WMassP&I in June the decision came after learning of MassMutual’s plans to sell the complex. Though the Marriott name has come down, the hospitality behemoth will run the hotel until December. Then what?

“In the event of a new hotel operator, the new operator will have the opportunity to inform the team about employment opportunities,” Marriott spokesperson Lucy Slosser told WMassP&I.

Dawn or dusk or a downtown icon? (via Facecbook/Tower Square)

MassMutual seemed to nod in that direction when queried about what happens if there was no buyer by December 15, the day Marriott leaves town.

“We will be seeking a buyer for the hotel who would make decisions about the future operations of the hotel property,” Jim Lacey, MassMutual’s head of media relations said in a June email. “If a buyer is not secured by the end of Marriott’s contract…we have many options, including operating it under alternate models or brands.”

This seems somewhat open-ended and indefinite. It certainly does not signal faith in the city’s upper-end hotel market.

Mayor Sarno’s efforts to build Springfield’s economy have borne some fruit, but the scale of the problem remains massive. (image made via Springfield mayoral portrait & loc.gov files)

Economic development can also be overstated. Mayor Sarno often claims there is $3.3 billion in public and private investment going into Springfield, an inflated figure. This includes long-finished hospital expansions or hardly-discretionary I-91 repairs. Tens of millions of MGM’s cost have gone to financing, Boston lobbyists and state fees. In fairness, Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy has discussed revising the $3.3 billion figure down to exclude older projects. A more accurate number—$2 billion give or take a hundred million—would still be impressive.

Still, MGM skeptics cannot dismiss the casino’s potential even if Connecticut’s tribes successfully build their East Windsor gaming outpost. CRRC could yet spawn a new wave of manufacturers and machinists who perform work on top of the factory’s employees.  Then there is Union Station. While still unfinished at track level, it could usher in the biggest bang for the buck among downtown’s projects.

But alone these are not enough. As The Journal observed, storefronts remain empty in downtown, across the city and in nearby towns. The region’s shopping centers are dying outside of the wealthiest suburbs. Poverty remains high and the infrastructure needs far outstrip available funding.

In other words, Springfield and the 413 more broadly are not out of the woods.

These problems can seem small compared to the developments that grab the headlines, but they are pervasive and deep in Greater Springfield. This is the understated argument in The Journal’s piece.

There no silver bullets, not even rail. But regular service to Boston, a mere 90 miles away, seems the only solution capable of matching the scale of Springfield’s and the 413’s plight. If national publications can see it, so must the region and the commonwealth.

One thought on “Analysis: Wall Street Considers Main Street in Springfield…”

  1. mdovell says:

    There’s a bit that was missing from the article…Connecticut and its issues.

    While it certainly can be argued that Springfield has had its share of hardship the current situation south of the border is horrific at best. Springfield is more linked to communities by the CT river as that’s also where I91 was created. Holyoke, Northampton, Greenfield, and Brattleboro to the north and Hartford and New Haven to the south. In all due respects even with the construction I-91 operates with much fewer traffic issues vs 128 around Boston.

    Having said that though CT is in a rough patch and they’ve kicked the can down the road as far as it could go. Hartford is increasingly looking like they will file for bankruptcy later this year or early next year. How would this impact Springfield? Well I-91 work is due to finish in the Spring and the NHHS rail line extension starts in May. This means being able to travel from these points will become more frequent. Take any two communities and show a increase in jobs in one and decrease in another and then make it faster and the process will get even faster. This means more job applicants from CT, more home buyers from CT, more people attending events from CT etc. Mass layoffs make property values drop and that creates lower rent prices and housing. Some of this has already started. Clean Slate on Mulberry Street in Springfield has closed but they are expanding in Hartford. As property values increase in Springfield if a non profit feels their stakeholders are leaving they might just sell and get a similar place somewhere cheaper and put the difference in operating.

    Another aspect is what is being planned is with the former Paramount/Hippodome theater. If the developer can really pull this off then it has the potential to siphon off much of the art scene of Northampton at least for the moderate to large clubs. Smaller acts I think are being priced out and are more apt to go to the Root Celler in Greenfield or the Gateway City Arts area in Holyoke. Having a 2,200 capacity theater next to Union Station will be huge. By drawing in Hartford and New Haven that’s well over 250,000 people add in Springfield itself and it’s over 400,000 people.It wouldn’t be that hard to see that at capacity.

    Throughout Springfield you can see developments beyond the casino. I have been here a few years and it is obvious. People know it is opening and that draws more attention. New paving at gas stations, new roofs at shopping plazas, increased hours, landscaping work more residential units going up. What this ultimately comes down to is marketing and selling. Boston is nice as a concept but in many respects, it isn’t really a savior. Half of the people that live in Boston make 35K or less and Boston Public Schools has a graduation rate of 71%. One of the biggest secrets in Springfield is that there’s a weekday train around 5:50am to NYC. Sure it’s long but it’s nearly the same as Boston to NYC with the Acela. Eventually, there will be a train to Boston as Worcester is land locked in terms of rail. Until that happens though Springfield will in the short term deal with the inflow of capital and labor from the Harford exodus.

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