Editorial: I-91 Delays a Preview for Future City Clashes with MGM…
UPDATED 9:42AM: To reflect a correction. A previous photo caption erroneously credited WMassP&I with producing the image. In fact it was MGM’s picture.
Word has gotten out that MGM Springfield may not meet its 2017 opening deadline, due to the ever-elongating timeline to repair I-91. With MassDOT now only ambling to repair the aging highway by 2019, MGM is stuck between opening a casino amid a construction nightmare and their obligations to Springfield.
MGM should have known or realized the state that brought you the Big Dig couldn’t replace a fifty year-old viaduct on time. The real question becomes whether Mayor Domenic Sarno will stand up to MGM going forward. This is not about I-91 related delays, which may be reasonable, but the tone it sets for future, bigger issues.
We only have so much sympathy for the Las Vegas-based company, which has been on a promise-making spree to muscle in on Connecticut’s gaming revenue. But that’s really between them and their shareholders, especially as it plays Santa Claus to the city and others hoping to cash in on the project. This new imbroglio is a test for Sarno as he faces the first wave of revisiting the casino agreement and haggling with MGM.
As MGM held its made-for-TV groundbreaking, it was fighting a war on two fronts. It was both lobbying Connecticut legislators to butt out and lumbering through local and state approval processes. Even before this week, breaking actual ground had been put off, risking MGM’s opening date and perhaps triggering penalties paid to the city.
The Republican’s editorial board improperly blamed the Springfield Historical Commission for earlier delays. In fact, MGM had dragged its heels before the local commission and its state analog. Progress on the City Council’s site review process is at a standstill with MGM’s presentation not yet ready for prime time.
The community host agreement can be altered, but changes must be negotiated by the mayor and approved by the Council. Unlike the 2013 negotiations, the city no longer retains the services of a law firm that specialized (Shefsky & Froelich has since merged with another firm) in helping communities negotiate with gaming companies. No disrespect to City Solicitor Ed Pikula, but he is a generalist and suffers from a credibility gap—fairly or not—among councilors. Without Cid Froelich, can Sarno stand firm with MGM?
The root of this doubt is not casinos. It is much broader. Despite rhetoric about Springfield being the greatest city on Earth, it belies a poor sense of collective municipal self-worth. This manifests in politicians and too often local media urging the city to jump into bed with whatever entity shows an interest in it.
This is a general statement. Frankly, the casino deal is decent for Springfield, which says something coming from a blog that has opposed gaming at every step. Nor is the city’s earnest reception of MGM itself only another example of Springfield’s “take what it can get” attitude. The concern is whether that attitude surfaces as MGM walks back commitments, starting with its opening.
Will Sarno hold the line or will he succumb to the city’s traditional, desperate outlook vis-à-vis development and cave to MGM’s requests? There is no reason he should not stand firm. At this point, MGM will not just up and leave over the relatively small alterations it may seek. Moreover, standing firm should not be mistaken for intractable inflexibility. If MGM wanted to change part of its plan and did so armed with a reasoned argument, the city should negotiate a fair trade.
With Sarno facing reelection, regardless of who his opponents are, the incentives for expediency (or keeping our new gaming overlords from squawking) grow. The comically obvious propaganda pushed out by the city on jobs and investment (and echoed by local media) leans heavily on MGM’s project.
But the fact is doing the right thing, that is staring down MGM—if need be—is one of those oft-elusive things in government: the right thing to do and good politics.
Should Sarno not discard the fear business will abandon us if we speak up, it will fall to councilors to show some intestinal fortitude.
Though casino opponents might swell with schadenfreude over MGM’s I-91 predicament, that does not mean its concerns should go unaddressed. But maybe Sarno and the city should reenlist Attorney Froelich or bring in the Gaming Commission to PROACTIVELY find a solution, lest the situation become a precedent for further slinking away from promises made.
There are enough safeguards built into the casino law for the Gaming Commission and the Attorney General to take the lead on enforcing the text of the agreement. The ultimate question remains, as MGM’s mood shifts, will Springfield have the guts to maintain favorable written terms or will it wet itself for fear of MGM bolting should the company not get everything it wants?