On Casinos: Vote with Your Whole Heart, Your Whole Mind and Your Whole Soul…
EDITED 7/12/13 2:01 PM: For grammar
The casino vote is nearly upon us. It is, in a way, one of the most important in the city in a long time, including actual elections for office. Faced with such a situation, the only approach for us and for Springfield voters is to vote. We urge every resident to vote with your whole heart, your whole mind and your whole soul. For us, by a split decision, that trio answers the question in the negative.
Governor Deval Patrick pushed for casinos early in his tenure, likely as a solution to underemployment and unemployment in Central, Southern and Western Massachusetts as well as the inner cities within Route 128. He was thwarted by former Speaker Sal DiMasi, but with the latter’s political demise also died the last bulwark against the bills.
Patrick, DiMasi’s successor Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray all failed to recognize is that the gaming industry is adapting to a world where they cannot rely on the bullet-proof economies of Vegas and elsewhere. They must regionalize and bring the casinos to gamblers.
We do not ascribe sinister intent to anyone. MGM has acted in good faith, save for their push for a prompt ballot (although unlikely to change the outcome much either way). But the promises, even if fulfilled, are not charity. They are the cost of doing business.
We opposed the expansion of gambling in Massachusetts not out of fear for the poor, but because it was not an effective form of economic development. It cannot turn lead into gold. Still it became law and so our analysis had to turn from what the law promised to what was being offered in light of what has happened elsewhere.
Therefore the proposal deserve our fair consideration. Not all Springfield proposals deserved this. After Ameristar backed out (or muscled out, take your pick) we had Penn National and MGM. The choice of MGM was the right one.
MGM to its credit hired some of the best and brightest local organizers in the area and cultivated critical partnerships with public safety and community groups. Penn National, by contrast essentially brought in the local paper and rested on its laurels with behind the scenes support of Charlie Kingston and Ray Jordan. That bet, combined with The Republican‘s heavy-handedness, backfired to MGM‘s rightful benefit.
However, that is not the end of the inquiry. While we think some of MGM’s promises are actually silly (a movie theater at the casino is an unnecessary saturation for this area unless it is an IMAX), the proposal is tantalizing all, $800 million of it. The mind, it would seem, is persuaded between the investment and the plans as proposed. That the renderings are basically just PR does not dissuade the mind.
Sadly some of the most prominent views on the issue have not been entirely useful. The helpful, if at times over-the-top, rumor mill Casino Whispers and The Republican stand on opposite sides of the casino issue. Between CW’s histrionics and The Republican’s Pollyannaish take on the issue, it is easy to miss key points.
CW talks about unanswered questions, but really it points to nothing that is all that determinative nor points to an agreement anywhere it thinks was done well. Rather, their mind seems to be long made up. CW sinks its teeth into criticism of the PILOT or payment in-lieu of taxes that the city entered into with the developers. This is among the least valid of criticisms as the purpose of the law used exists for circumstances like this. The casino, which will have no peer in the city, will be nearly impossible for the city assessor to properly evaluate.
Normal assessment policies would create a legal nightmare for the City Law Department as it engages in inevitable litigation. Even if that did not happen, it would tie the city’s fate to the value of the casino, that is its revenue. As countless other states’ casino experiments have proven, these projections are almost always wrong. Minimizing Springfield’s reliance on revenue is not a giveaway, it is wise.
The Republican, by contrast, assumes the absolute best, with no analysis or nuance, almost bordering irony. The amount of the investment and the number of jobs may be accurate, but could be cancelled out by job losses in existing restaurants or shops. Either in competition with the casino’s own stores or lost on a bet, the losses are not negligible and unlikely to be made up for by non-local visits. While losses to the suburbs may elicit little concern, the draw from Eastfield or Five Town Plaza should.
The casino jobs themselves are unlikely to lift anybody out of poverty or restore hope to unemployed young people. Income may only be a few dollars above minimum wage, unable to counteract the dispiriting malaise challenging Springfield. The good living employees make in Nevada is due to a moment in time, not the nature of the business.
MGM will be not be able to land much high-end shopping as the wealth to support it is not here. A store or two maybe, but only with a heavy subsidy from MGM. In Detroit, the casinos there promised high-end shopping and some guides still tout it, but it is not there. The wealthy in Detroit have Grosse Point and Livonia. In Springfield it will be the same. Non-gamblers with money, especially from Connecticut, will stick to where the shops are plentiful (and incidentally profitable) like Westfarms.
Finally, the promise of entertainment is naïve at best. Stars skip Springfield because of low-demand and venue competition. Foxwoods and Mohegan have not alone neutered the MassMutual Center’s appeal to A-list acts. The Republican forgets that UMass-convenient Mullin’s Center and XL Center (and Comcast Theater) compete with the former Springfield Civic Center, too.
MGM can subsidize acts, but that will not mean they will come here over the CT casinos near larger populations or student-accessible Amherst. Moreover, how would the city get a court to rule MGM is breaching if it only ends up bringing B-list (or lower) acts?
But the bottom line on the investment remains irresistible. A few short years of boom might be enough to carry the city through some difficult times and maybe some of the state’s cut could redound to Springfield in local aide.
What troubles us though remains the long game and the example of other communities in other states. None of the large cities in which casinos have been introduced are perfect parallels to Springfield, but we can draw lessons.
In many states, the promised revenue has come in lower than promised time and time again, raising questions about the wisdom of letting gaming in. In the last recession it hit Michigan hard and still not at the floor. Every month it seems like the Connecticut casino revenue is falling. Urban casinos’ yields have been particularly paltry in Eastern Pennsylvania, even if the attendant crime is not as high as feared.
When casinos first came to the now-bankrupt City of Detroit, the plan was to use funds to invest in the city and attract business and residents. Instead, the money plugged Detroit’s yawning deficit. This fiscal year Springfield is already using casino money to close deficits, and will need it even more if property values fall due to the casino.
In Cincinnati, a promised “outward-facing” casino has seemingly fallen short of the mark despite being right on the edge of downtown. There does not appear to be an connection with to the urban landscape. Indeed, developers have even considered air walks which would discourage patrons from using city sidewalks and interacting with the cityscape.
What may trouble us most is the promises of the “resort” being more than just gambling. This is not economically viable. Gambling makes the money and pays all the bills as a recent development in Atlantic City, the Revel, shows. Made possible by heavy state subsidies and promised to be more than gambling, this resort nearly went bankrupt and is now leaning on gambling—hard.
The mind still votes yes. But that is only one vote. The heart worries that after the flutter of construction we will see a zero sum game play out with existing businesses and jobs.
Not to mention we cannot view this in a vacuum. None of the casinos in Massachusetts can beome “destinations” beyond their own regions. Indeed expanded gambling in New York and the its possibility in New Hampshire assure that these will be short-haul regional “destinations.” In Western Mass the casinos proposed may capture some Foxwoods/Mohegan-bound money. But a growth industry? Not so much.
And then the soul? We go back to lazy economic development. Industry departed the area for many reasons. Yet despite having more resources than communities in other Western Mass counties that succeeded on that front, almost no effort has been made here.
A new economy has largely not developed here and a casino will make it less likely as it become the city‘s new crutch. Instead of leveraging our place as the capital of Western Mass, we have become the poor cousin within New England. Casinos cannot change that. They confirm it. The soul votes no.
We respect the work many have done on this project and we recognize that all of the above example are not MGM’s properties. But among the heart, mind and soul the vote is 2-1. The Nays have it. No on July 16.