It has been almost seven months since the first full casino opened in Massachusetts as part of the Massachusetts Expanded Gaming Act signed into law in 2012. MGM Springfield Resort Casino has had its share of growing pains while giving the city of Springfield hope and confidence in its future, something the city has not had for decades.
For myself, it has been an enjoyable past time to watch the second Massachusetts casino since it opened in August of 2018. I consider it a bewildering property on New England’s casino landscape. Let’s look at how they got here.
HOW MGM LANDED IN SPRINGFIELD
THE WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS LICENSE
MGM Springfield was one of three proposals in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts for the Western Massachusetts casino license. Casinos were also proposed for Holyoke, Palmer, and West Springfield. MGM officially received the license on June 13, 2014, joining two others. Penn National, which was awarded the slot parlor license, and Wynn Massachusetts, which was awarded the Eastern Massachusetts Region A casino license.
Some of the things mentioned in the property’s design leading up to the opening last year included many interesting amenities and items that didn’t necessarily make it into the final building. In 2012, then Springfield City Council President James J. Ferrera III. said “As part of the discussions, MGM revealed an interest in having a skywalk created to link that side of Main Street near State Street with the nearby MassMutual Center.” A direct pedestrian bridge link across State and Main streets connecting into the MassMutual Center would have been a great addition, connecting the large 8,000 seat arena/convention center two blocks away.
Other items in the original Phase 1 Proposal in October 2012 included a variety of food and beverage venues such as a Buffet — family style, cook-to-order quality cuisine (not in the final plan), two specialty restaurants to be run by MGM Resorts (Cal Mare & Chandler Steak House), an Irish Pub — Nine Fine Irishmen branded pub with exciting nightlife featuring dueling pianos (the TAP Sports Bar was chosen for the pub brand instead), and a casual dining food court made up of multi-cuisine local vendors.
The hotel blueprint for the four-star luxury hotel was to be comprised of 264 standard guest rooms (410-square-foot bay), 20 VIP suites (1,000-square-foot bay) in a hotel tower designed to appear as two contemporary distinct glazed towers of differing colored glass rising out of a base that will complement the surrounding historic context. The hotel lobby interior covered a contemporary flavor with a “bistro-style coffee shop conveniently located to serve hotel/casino patrons, as well as the public.” The lobby actually became a much nicer area with historic significance to Springfield, a lobby bar and a Starbucks connected.
The original proposal was an $800 million MGM Springfield project and was expected to break ground in the spring of 2015 and take roughly two-and-a-half years to build, putting MGM on track for a 2017 opening. MGM’s casino plan called for a casino floor offering 3,000 slot machines and 75 gambling tables, a 250-room hotel and shopping, dining, meeting and entertainment space on 14.5 acres.
Historic Preservation – MGM Springfield
MGM also promised to preserve historic buildings and storefronts downtown while adding new amenities like a public plaza, cinema and bowling alley. MGM’s project was expected to employ over 2,000 temporary construction workers and no less than 3,000 permanent workers when the casino opens. Unfortunately, a pending Interstate 91 viaduct rehabilitation project in downtown center planned by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation put the opening forward one year. This was not the only change from the original plans.
MGM CHANGES THE PLANS
In 2015, MGM “reduced the project footprint by 14 percent,” effectively taking out the “wow” factor of the casino and eliminating the 25-story glass hotel tower, reducing the price of the project that seemed to be approaching a costly figure. MGM also made changes to the hotel layout, including the elimination of 250 to 300 parking spaces by removing one floor from the planned parking garage and the relocation of planned market-rate housing off-site.
MGM Springfield president Michael Mathis said “eliminating the 250-room hotel tower in favor of a six-story 250-room hotel spread along a block of Main Street will reduce the construction costs, but will not adversely impact the marketing of the casino or make it less attractive to so-called higher roller gamblers…….The way I think about is: no one can see the tower from Hartford.” These changes may unfortunately come back to haunt Mr. Mathis, especially an emblematic hotel tower added to the ordinary city skyline. Speculation was that MGM was getting a little too much heat from the expected competition from CT expansion 20 minutes away, adding a casino in the Hartford area, or even more north of Hartford. For more coverage, go to MGM Changes To Casino Project Makes Springfield Underwhelming.
“We want to build an urban environment.” – Jim Murren, Chairman & CEO, MGM – Building a casino in the middle of a city is something new, an approach that sets MGM Springfield apart from all other casinos in the east. It’s called an “Urban Casino” – built in an already existing downtown area and made to fit in the existing landscape of the city. MGM didn’t just build a casino in the middle of Springfield, they dedicated the hotel and casino to Springfield’s history, culture and dynamic residents.
Bill Hornbuckle, president of MGM Resorts International, promised to complement the architecture of the downtown-South End area, and to incorporate and share the history of Springfield and Western Massachusetts. The hotel lobby opens into a large lounge area with many local historic references. The objects on display included many obtained from the Brimfield Antique and Collectibles Show. There are antique books and copies of Springfield-based Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary in many spots, along with classic Milton Bradley board games and books written by local authors – all with roots to Springfield.
Two notable examples of history incorporated into the casino project was saving the 1895 State Armory building that is an anchor to the outside pavilion of the complex and shifting the location of the First Spiritualist Church at great cost as another anchor to the plaza that preserves and reuses the 1887 building for retail. For more about MGM’s historic interests in Springfield see MGM Springfield Releases New Details with Local Flavor.
HAS MGM BROUGHT Success TO Springfield
Has MGM’s arrival lived up to the hype? – Has it lived up to the community’s opinion and expectations? Simply said, Yes.
Peter Goonan, of the The Republican reported “The host-community agreement is (MGM Springfield’s) requirement. It does get amended, at times. But the city officials we spoke to — and backed up with MGM information — is that they’re almost entirely up to date on meeting their promises to the city and state…..there’s a pledge to provide a minimum of 54 units of market-rate housing in the general downtown area, and they have not met that commitment yet, and the deadline for that has been extended. The city officials, including Mayor Sarno and the [Springfield] City Council, have wanted MGM to hold off on construction of these market-rate apartments, because they want the apartments to go to the Elm Street block — which has been vacant for over two decades, or mostly vacant — and that is their hope, that MGM can help make that private development project a reality.
The city is home to more than $4 billion worth of construction projects either completed or in planning — both public and private — since the June 2011 tornado. New projects include the redevelopment of long-blighted properties in and around the city center that have vexed officials and civic leaders for decades. And just recently, one new project is a $37 million hotel project at the old York Street Jail site in the South End. Plans call for not just a hotel but also an indoor rock-climbing gym and indoor skydiving center. Indoor skydiving involves people held aloft by large fans. Additional hotel and hotel renovations continue to be rumored as well.
MGM BRINGS VALUE TO SPRINGFIELD COMMUNITY
Gaming is only the tip of the iceberg of hopes for Springfield’s rise from its community’s woes. In fact, a measurable difference has been seen in real-estate consumption and a rise in property values. Chris DiMauro in his coverage of Springfield expansion and gambling said that “Springfield hasn’t seen this movement in real estate in decades. Beautiful Victorian properties are now being looked at by B&B and other clients, with confidence in a rise of Springfield’s expected affluence increase, a direct result of MGM Springfield.” His podcast “Art in the Game” focuses on the city’s benefits that MGM Springfield provides while keeping track of the latest casino news and promotions.
The Loop has connected downtown’s museums and casino. MGM partnered with local businesses, such as the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, and is offers a free bus service called the Loop that will make stops at various museums and attractions in and around Springfield.
Revenue took a dive to start 2019, but last month bounced back, generating $21.5 million in gross gaming revenues in February, reflecting a 9.1 percent increase over January’s total, which had set a low mark since the casino opened in August. The cut in Connecticut’s tribal gaming monopoly has not materialized as expected. Connecticut budget planners had expected a 25-percent drop in slot revenues from Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino due to MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor. Now, they forecast a much smaller hit of 9.2 percent.
Growing pains are typical in any casino growth at first. Plainridge Park experienced that in its first year, only to turn it around slowly. MGM’s Mike Mathis feels the same will happen in the first three years. The continued conundrum for MGM Springfield is how to improve its space that is already at its peak of offerings. At 125,000 square feet, it’s only the fifth largest casino out of eight, and sixth after Encore Boston Harbor is built.
But, Is MGM Springfield a Resort Destination?
AMENITIES – A Resort usually has something for everyone – not just the gambler. While MGM Springfield wants to be all things to everyone like the other MGM resorts nation-wide, this has property come up short.
The property offers many opportunities for family friendly activities. the outdoor plaza does offer ice skating in the winter, and summer activities include farmers markets, yoga and outdoor concerts. Interesting dining amenities provide all levels of casual & forming dining – just not enough for a “Resort.” Restaurants such as Chandler Steakhouse and Michael Mina’s Cal Mare are the high end dinning options. When it comes to casual dining, TAP (a huge sports bar that can be found in other MGM properties) is terrific, but the South End Market (food court) including Hearth Grill, Bill’s Diner, Wicked Noodles, Jack’s Lobster Shack lacks consistent quality and is usually understaffed outlets. Breakfast options are few.
Fun, non-gaming activities include 12 bowling lanes inside the arcade, a TopGolf Suite, and a luxury movie theater. The upstairs conference areas are nicely laid out, but once again, lacks space for big events.
MASS MUTUAL CENTER – The use of the MassMutual Center will become more and more important. It is the home of the AHL Thunderbirds and many concert events, MGM manages the property and can add many large events. But to this date, it has gone under-used. With concert and convention events occurring at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods in Connecticut at a staggering pace, MGM has kept a modest presence at MassMutual. In the past six months, other than their splash at opening with Stevie Wonder, MGM hasn’t done a lot of entertainment. The addition of the ROAR! comedy club in the historic Armory has done very well with great comedians, and headliners like Cher and Aerosmith are scheduled, but other than that, little to none. Having to leave the casino to get there, although it’s only a few blocks away, does bring safety concerns at night and is inconvenient compared to venues attached.
CONVENTION MARKET – In comparison, Mohegan Sun ticket sales at its 10,000-seat arena have remained steady and its hotels are at a better than 95-percent occupancy rate. It’s $80 million Earth Expo & Convention Center, a 145,000 square-foot facility that opened in May 2018 , has already lured away the Hartford Boat Show and Connecticut International Auto Show from the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford and cause more competition problems for MGM.
CHANGE ON THE HORIZON – MGM Springfield
A MAJOR COUP for MGM – MGM recently stole the Red Sox connection from Foxwoods Resort. The Winter Weekend event, which has been held at Foxwoods since its introduction in 2015, is the club’s premier offseason event and includes meet-and-greets with coaches and players, baseball clinics and a Red Sox Town Hall event. The Red Sox reached a “multi-year partnership” with MGM as team’s “official and exclusive resort casino.” The agreement also calls for MGM signage to appear throughout Fenway Park, including a large advertisement including the chain’s lion logo on the Green Monster in left field. MGM will also have advertisements on team-controlled radio and television stations and promote VIP game day hospitality at the ballpark.
THE CASINO FLOOR & PROMOTIONS – Gambling in Springfield is now another option for those in Western Massachusetts used to traveling west to New York State or down to the Connecticut tribal casinos. Improvements continue to be made on the casino floor. Two self service beverage stations are a great option for non-alcoholic beverages.
As MGM still tries to figure out traffic problems inside the enclosed space, kiosks continue to be moved, or removed, and the Cashier is now the same space for Mlife Rewards. Speaking of Mlife kiosks, a constant disappointment is the availability and use of them. Long lines at peak times have been a major complaint by guests, especially during promotions days.
Gaming and Promotions are drawing people in. daily promotions with gifts, swiping for free slot play, and especially Tier Multipliers are very competitive and have been received very well by patrons. Changes such as lowering of table game limits has lead to more table game play and now rivals Twin River Casino in Rhode Island and the Connecticut Tribal casinos. The poker room immediately became one of the best in New England.
Having a nation-wide Rewards program is a major plus. Anyone connected to Mlife can play at Springfield and get offers for National Harbor, Borgata, and the many Vegas properties – something only Penn National and Wynn could brag about in New England.
WHALE SIGHTINGS, ANYONE? – A big question exists concerning the courting of high rollers. With no VIP lounge, and a small high limit area, does MGM expect to bring in other players from Las Vegas and Atlantic City to play in Springfield? Only 16 Suites and a small 250 room hotel doesn’t scream high tier players. Whether you are staying in a suite or a deluxe hotel room, lacking great breakfast options and/or a buffet is a major faux pas. Of course, MGM’s connection to the Red Sox, MLB and other professional sports could lure a few.
Many Questions Still Remain
IS IT SAFE? – 2018 crime stats show MGM Springfield casino dealt with almost twice as many incidents in four months as Plainridge Park Casino faced all year. This could be skewed by the fact it’s inside the city. Ryan Walsh, spokesperson for Springfield Police, reported MGM Springfield’s presence is not bringing more serious crime to downtown. He said it’s been mostly minor offenses. Residents have also reported an increase in security presence and the lack of expected criminal activity.
Changes in security to keep minors off floor continue to be a major concern. MGM has been trying to make the overall location somehow family-friendly and open to people passing through of all ages. One of the challenges was an X-shaped pathway across the casino floor MGM initially tried to make open to people of all ages. When it turned out to be more of a problem than a solution, the whole area was turned into a gaming area.
Impact of Encore Boston Harbor
What will be the impact of Encore Boston Harbor Resort? – Needless to say, Encore Boston Harbor will have an amazing impact on all casinos in New England. It will draw players from the two Maine casinos who want an up-scaled property to visit. It will draw players from the Big Four – Foxwoods, MGM Springfield, Mohegan Sun and Twin River. It will provide a high quality of dining, amenities, hotel accommodations, and shopping that many of us will never be able to take part in, but will be such a high quality resort that it will draw from all over the country – and all over the world.
But, could it be that the upper crust that will be lured to Boston aren’t the clientele that the rest of the casino resorts seek? Rather, would many of those players who still want good gambling, better comps and rewards for their play still look to the Connecticut and Massachusetts casinos for their “home base?”
Will MGM Springfield face challenges from the joint Connecticut tribal Casino “Tribal Winds?” – Yes, the same way Plainridge Park Casino challenged Twin River at first, and Twin River Casino challenged the Connecticut casinos – location, location, location. The numbers of gamblers at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun from up north did decrease, but not to the extent expected. The same will follow for MGM Springfield. The hearty Massachusetts patrons will stand by their western Mass casino and I predict it will still help Springfield rise from the ashes – that is if MGM doesn’t cut the financial legs out from under it with some of its cost cutting propositions.
Final Thoughts – MGM Springfield
It’s difficult to peer into any casino’s future, or the future of any one geographic area. New England’s gaming landscape has a lot more to endure with the additions of sports betting, mobile online betting, Encore, Tribal Winds, and even the possibility of MGM Bridgeport. But one thing is certain – it’s going to be an exciting journey to follow.
“NETimeGambling is a non-monetized blog created for my personal interest and passion in the gambling industry – its history, and its ongoing evolution – mixed with my love for New England. Come share my passion and visit us.”
After directing middle school chorus and middle school drama for 41 years, and I will be retiring this year to pursue travel with my wife and to further expand my interest in the gambling industry, which I been fascinated by for over twenty years. The goal of NETimeGambling is to provide a service and resource for any recreational gambler visiting New England’s expanding casino market and interested in gambling tips, news and advice.
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