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Between the Lines: Uncertainty in Springfield

While Mayor Domenic Sarno pushes the state to pick up the pace of the casino selection process, city residents are left to wonder what the future will bring.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

It is hard to watch the public process set up by Mayor Domenic Sarno for selecting a casino developer in Springfield without feeling bad for the people who live there.

Last week, as Sarno's team met with members of the State Gaming Commission to discuss the timetable for choosing a developer, the mayor's sense of urgency was obvious. Sarno told the commission that Springfield not only needs to bring a casino to the city, it needs to do it fast. Chief among the reasons to move forward quickly, Sarno said, was Springfield's desperate need to rebuild and revitalize the city in the aftermath of the June 1, 2011 tornado that left many neighborhoods in shambles.

The mayor objected vehemently to gaming commissioner Stephen Crosby's warning that the city's schedule for selecting a developer by January was at odds with the commission's schedule for first establishing rules to evaluate bidders and then working toward a final selection in mid-2013.

"The tornado-ravaged citizens of the City of Springfield, they're going to sit back and look at these derelict, decaying buildings until some movement is made by the gaming commission?" Sarno said, sounding incredulous. "I'm here day to day. I'm on the street, and it's difficult to say, You've got to hold on another six months, maybe another year, maybe another 18 months."

At another point during the Sept. 11 meeting at Springfield Technical Community College, Springfield's mayor complained, "It's very tedious to the business community, the taxpayers and residents to say, Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait."

Crosby, meanwhile, was resolute in reiterating that the gaming commission will stick to its own timetable, setting the rules for evaluating bids by January and spending the next six months reviewing the proposals.

"We will then make our decision, and that will take however long it takes, and that won't be affected by your process," Crosby said. He warned the city that, by jumping the gun and selecting a developer without having seen the rules for evaluating bids, it might make choices that the commission will ultimately disallow.

Even though the promised economic benefits of casino gambling, whether for the state as a whole or for possible host communities such as Springfield, are at best overblown, one can't help but feel some sympathy for Dom Sarno. While Crosby and his fellow commission members go through a long if necessary selection process, Springfield finds itself in the unusual position of being the only municipality in the state with more than one casino suitor. With four developers in the mix and large swaths of real estate around the city optioned for a possible casino, an already economically stagnant city has come to a near-standstill. For many at the top of Springfield's food chain, the casino issue is the only game in town.

The issue has already hurt Springfield immeasurably. For two decades, many city officials, as well as many of Springfield's civic and business leaders, have pinned their hopes on the prospect of casino development. Rather than embracing sensible but not glamorous public initiatives to lure small and medium-sized businesses to the many vacant offices and factories in Springfield, rather than developing and exerting the political muscle to compel state officials to invest more than they have in Springfield's recovery, the city's elite have pushed casinos as a panacea. While it remains unclear that voters in Springfield support this latest push for gambling in their city—whatever Sarno, Crosby and their respective teams eventually decide, nothing will happen unless voters ratify it in a public referendum—city residents have been offered little else in which to invest hope for the future.

While Springfield's plight was dire long before the 2011 tornado ravaged parts of the city, Sarno's decision to point to an act of God last week rather than to the legacy of political cowardice and malfeasance in Springfield and on Beacon Hill may make sense in the long run. Sarno may have found the emotional hot button that persuades state officials to pick his city to host a casino. On the other hand, by trying to move the process to a conclusion more quickly than state officials will allow, Sarno may come up empty-handed in the end.

What will Springfield look like in five years if it ultimately wins the chance to host a huge resort casino? What will it look like if a casino never comes? And how does one invest in one's future, in one's children's future, in a place facing so much uncertainty? To the residents of Springfield, whether or not they support any or all of the proposals, the future must seem more uncertain today than ever before.

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