The Year in Springfield 2015…
Another year come and gone in the City of Homes, complete with a mayoral election. While the race itself maintained an inevitable air throughout, it nevertheless revealed much about the state of Springfield. From economic interest from the Promised Land to increasing drama with MGM, 2015 was quite an experience.
The Year in Springfield began in its state capital, Boston, amid transitions. Not only was 413-friend Deval Patrick replaced by less-westerly present Charlie Baker, but two of Springfield’s rep seats turned over as did the senate seat covering a third of the city. Former Springfield city councilor Jose Tosado and Latino Chamber of Commerce Head Carlos Gonzalez filled the House seats.
Longmeadow resident Eric Lesser succeeded Gale Candaras in the 1st Hampden & Hampshire Senate district. A centerpiece of Lesser’s campaign was establishing regular, reliable rail service between Boston and Springfield. While not passed into law during 2015, it passed the Senate.
Perhaps starting a new tradition, Lesser and the city’s other senator, James Welch, attended city council meetings to receive feedback, especially on Springfield’s needs in the state budget.
The Council’s president, Michael Fenton helped facilitate Lesser and Welch’s meetings. Already in his second year leading the chamber—a third begins January 4—much speculation centered on Fenton as a challenger to Domenic Sarno in the city’s mayoral contest. Fenton did little to curtail the talk.
However, 2015 turned out to be ward representation boosters’ dream come true. Six out of eight ward council seats were contested and five challengers took on the five incumbent at-large councilors, all of whom sought reelection. For a time, at-large aspirant Jesse Lederman might have the steam to oust an incumbent like Justin Hurst did in 2013.
January brought local transitions, too, like Springfield resident Anthony Gulluni’s swearing in as Hampden District Attorney. His first months were focused on getting acclimated, but Gulluni has turned to youth intervention, opiates and rectifying the funding inequities the Hampden DA’s office faces.
Yet no story would define 2015 in Springfield more, including the elections, than MGM. The near-billion project (as measured by investments in the property and in filing and regulatory costs) has had its rockiest year since coming to Massachusetts.
Two events, the lengthening timeline for replacement of the I-91 viaduct and Connecticut’s potential of expanded gambling unsettled MGM. The former imperiled the casino’s grand opening. A later opening was approved by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, but MGM’s March groundbreaking heralded little but doubts as the project changed considerably in 2015.
MGM’s allies in the press and to a lesser extent City Hall had blamed the city and state historical commissions for other delays. That was nonsense—the issues could have been hammered out long before 2015—but the company did reach agreements with historical preservation officials.
In the race for mayor, a burst of candidacies materialized before the filing deadline. Challengers to Sarno included Salvatore Circosta, Ivelisse Gonzalez, Michael Jones, Johnnie Rae McKnight (who started his campaign in 2014) and Beverly Savage and Miguel Soto. It was a motley crew, but they reflected a discontent with Sarno’s rule. Fenton quietly sought reelection as Ward 2’s councilor.
In Boston, a midsummer NEPR report ostensibly caught the governor’s attention who spent little time in Western Mass during his early months in office. Since then Baker has been less of a stranger to the 413, if often for fundraisers.
While the MGM-related historical issues got the press, new historical districts were also erected in the city. The first, surrounding the Willys-Overland building downtown, protected a structure, harmed, but not structurally compromised by the 2012 gas explosion. The Council also approved the Colony Hills historical district along the Longmeadow border.
Sarno drew criticism for not participating in debates for the mayoral preliminary, but amid pathetic turnout in the September 9 preliminary, Sarno easily advanced to the general election alongside Circosta. Circosta’s campaign centered on Springfield’s failure to adapt and advance. However, the race lacked the spice of other regional mayoral contests.
Much to Sarno’s dismay, MGM brought about what amounted to an October surprise. MGM deleted its 25-story hotel tower and moved housing off-site. Sarno accepted this without much complaint. Many welcomed the redesign, but were concerned about MGM’s scaling back.
Others, noting the referendum voters approved in 2013 included the tower, were willing to brook changes, but felt the city should get something in exchange for a smaller facility.
The tower furor turned into a conflagration as regulatory filings revealed MGM was shrinking the project by 14%. MGM execs came to Springfield and, in an awkward display, reaffirmed their commitment to Springfield. They insisted the changes would leave the customer experience unaffected.
Despite a new public relations campaign, never again would so many residents perceive MGM to be the godsend it sometimes seemed.
MGM was not the only economic project in the city. Union Station and the railcar plant, while subject to controversy over tax breaks, could have huge positive impacts. Yet, in 2015 prominent neighborhood establishments across the city closed. MGM preconstruction put stress on other businesses.
Perhaps not mana from heaven, but Senator Lesser and the Israeli Consul General for New England, made the first steps to establish economic ties between the 413 and Israel. Consul Yehuda Yaakov toured tourist and tech sites in the city. With startup incubators here and direct flights to Logan Airport, perhaps Israeli businesspeople and tourists might look west during trips to Massachusetts.
Ultimately, Springfield’s election was kind to mayoral and council at-large incumbents. Turnout was abysmal, but there were surprises. Incumbents in wards 1 and 5, Zaida Luna and Clodo Concepcion, lost to challengers Adam Gomez and Marcus Williams.
Sarno may have felt the results gave him the political capital to clean house. Though Sarno’s removal of Circosta from the police oversight board was cheap, it was well within his power. Removing historical commissioners who sought more preservation from MGM proved more complicated.
State and local law requires the mayor to receive nominations for some of the historical commission’s seats. Sarno made appointments to replace commissioners Marjorie Guess, Robert McCarroll and Ralph Slate, though those to succeed the latter two did not comply with the law. The nominating organizations were contacted, but the mayor has yet to forward any formal nominations to the Council.
There was one notable political departure. Antonette Pepe, the fiery, unyielding former School Committeemember died suddenly in December, prompting a flood of tributes and this blog’s remembrance.
As the year came a close two final matters captured the attention. Closures of I-91 began, ushering in Springfield’s own years-long Carmageddon. The other regarded concerns about how Polices spokesman Sgt. John Delaney described individuals connected to crime. Councilor Orlando Ramos registered a complaint. While it prompted a non-sequitur in the form of a proclamation about Delaney’s career, Ramos said he has noticed a different tone in Police Department’s press releases.
In Springfield, 2016 promises to be as full and fraught as 2015. MGM’s future may be determined by events in Connecticut. The Council may yet take ahold of its true power—or not. Of course events taking place in Boston can always rock the City of Homes as well.