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Briefings: Council May Consult Higher Power on MGM Changes…the People…

UPDATED 5:47PM: To reflect an addition of MGM’s response to the referendum.

What if voters now think MGM's commitments are just pie in the sky? (via mgmspringfield.com)

Residents may be able to weigh in on ditching the tower. (via mgmspringfield.com)

Following MGM’s announcement Tuesday that it was scaling back the height, if not the overall size of its hotel as part of its casino complex, it was immediately apparent this constituted a change in the city’s host agreement with the gaming company. As such the Springfield City Council would have the opportunity to vote to ratify the amendments at some point in the future. However, councilors may not have to wait that long to weigh in.

Next Tuesday, the Springfield City Council will consider a nonbinding referendum, sponsored by Council President Michael Fenton, for the November 3 ballot through which residents can register their approval or disapproval of MGM’s design change. In its announcement, the company removed the long-planned 25-story hotel slated for 73 State Street. MGM will instead place the hotel in a 6-story structure along Main Street.

Thursday morning, Massachusetts Gaming Commissioners grilled MGM officials, including MGM Springfield President Mike Mathis, over the changes. The company said “skyrocketing” construction costs were the reason for the redesign, which would keep the project closer to its $800 million budget. Reports describe commissioners as caught off guard and “troubled” by the changes, but they promised an extensive review for MGM’s new plan.

MGM’s emphasis on cost is in contrast to Mayor Domenic Sarno’s characterization of the changes as driven by architectural and urban planning.

MGM insisted it is not backing away from its commitments. Features like gardens, restaurants and bowling alleys and even some of the arguably superfluous components like cinemas (a movie theater in East Springfield shut down only recently) will remain. In essence, MGM has argued the redesign is one of form, rather than function.

WWLP reported in July that the $800 figure, as it is, includes MGM’s startup costs, fees and financing charges. Construction itself was only about $500 million.

Although opinions about a shorter hotel among residents, analysts and councilors has varied, there is a sense that MGM breached some trust. Some councilors have suggested city voters were sold something in 2013 other than what is now planned.

City Council President Michael Fenton in 2014. (WMassP&I)

City Council President Michael Fenton in 2014. (WMassP&I)

The Council already had a meeting scheduled for Tuesday to approve the CRRC tax incremental financing plan. Fenton, who attended Mayor Domenic Sarno’s press availability two days ago, had said losing the tower cost the project its “‘wow’ factor and assured greater review by the Council.

While that diligence will go on until the changes are formally submitted to the body, the referendum would give residents a vote too, however symbolic. The question, as written, asks whether voters support an amendment to the host community agreement “which would eliminate the high-rise glass hotel at 73 State Street.”

The window for the Council to approve the question is closing fast with the election less than six weeks away. Already nonbinding questions on a 4 year council term and Common Core educational standards are on the November ballot.

In an email, an MGM spokesperson did not address the referendum directly, but did say the company hoped the Council “will see the merits of the new, more integrated downtown design plan.”

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