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Chips on the Table

Springfield’s working residents voice their own requirements for a casino in town.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Of all the Massachusetts communities in the running to host a casino—there are 11 proposals for projects across the commonwealth, four of them in Western Mass.—is any counting on a casino’s potentially transformative powers as much as Springfield is?

Certainly, a casino would have significant effects on any town. But in Springfield, perhaps more than any other place, there’s a sense that a casino would shape the city’s future in profound ways. “There’s so much at stake here,” said City Council president Jimmy Ferrera, who described a potential casino as the biggest economic development project in the city’s history.

First and foremost, a casino would bring sorely needed jobs to the city, where the unemployment rate is 10.6 percent and almost one-quarter of families lives below the poverty line. It would also dramatically alter the physical landscape of Springfield; each of the two plans proposed for the city would border densely populated residential neighborhoods and encompass large portions of downtown.

Mayor Domenic Sarno is reviewing both proposals to decide whether to negotiate an agreement with one, both or (conceivably, but not likely) neither. He’s expected to announce his decision early next week. From there, the agreement would need to be passed by the City Council, then by city voters. Finally, the state’s Gaming Commission would have to sign off on the project.

Mindful of those necessary approvals, the casino companies are heavily courting the city, offering proposals rich with promises. That, says a coalition of Springfield community organizations, creates an important opportunity for residents to weigh in and ensure that the developers make meaningful commitments to the entire city—especially its most struggling residents.

“Personally, I’ve never been thrilled with the idea of a casino,” said Lara Shephard-Blue of Neighbor to Neighbor, one of the groups in the coalition. “We need economic development, obviously, but I don’t think a casino is a good kind of economic development.”

Still, she said, “It’s very likely to happen, and we want to make sure it benefits the community.”

 

The two casino developers eyeing Springfield have invested heavily in promoting their projects, establishing websites and opening storefront offices, making the rounds of neighborhood meetings, donating to various city programs and events.

MGM, which has its eye on the South End, talks of revitalizing that tornado-damaged area with an $850 million project that includes shops and restaurants, hotel rooms and apartments, even a skating rink at Riverfront Park. Most significant, the corporation says its project would create 2,000 construction jobs and 3,000 casino jobs.

At the other side of town, Penn National proposes an $807 million North End project with promises to help develop Union Station, renovate the Paramount Theater and support a UMass center downtown. Its plan, Penn National says, would create 2,100 construction jobs and 2,400 casino positions, 90 percent of which would be filled by local people.

The community coalition—whose members include Voces de la Comunidad/Voices of the Community, Neighbor to Neighbor, Springfield No One Leaves/Nadie Se Mude, Arise for Social Justice and Jobs With Justice, as well as several unions—is preparing a survey that asks residents what they’d like to see a potential casino offer the city in areas such as employment, housing and community programs.

Job creation is a key focus. “The idea of bringing thousands of jobs is very appealing,” said Shephard-Blue. “The question for us is, what kind of jobs are they going to be?” At a recent community meeting, residents talked about wanting to ensure that casino jobs pay living wages, with benefits, and that city residents, especially from the low-income areas where the casinos are proposed, get preference in hiring. “Any proposal we would support should have a strong neutrality agreement,” in which the company vows not to interfere if employees try to form a union, Shephard-Blue said. (MGM has already signed such a pledge.)

In addition, said Candejah Pink of Springfield No One Leaves, members want to make sure that applicants who have criminal records aren’t turned away unnecessarily. Criminal background checks, she said, should be required for jobs that involve handling money or working with children or the elderly. “But if somebody wants a position as janitor,” she asks, “why should they have to worry about telling their whole life story?”

Coalition members also want the casino developers to address Springfield’s housing problems. They’re concerned that the projects would displace residents and drive up rents in the area, said Shephard-Blue, noting, for instance, MGM’s plan to develop market-rate housing near its casino. Higher-priced units won’t meet the city’s most pressing housing need, said Pink, who noted the city’s high foreclosure rate and the affordable housing lost in the 2011 tornado. “Not everybody can afford a condo,” she said. “We barely can make ends meet. Most people are living check to check.” The coalition would like casino developers to support a housing trust fund that would be controlled by residents, who know best the city’s needs, Pink said.

Ivette Hernandez of Voices of the Community echoed the desire to see casinos offer good-quality jobs to Springfield residents, along with training programs that would help workers move into higher-level positions. She’s also concerned about how an influx of casino workers would affect bus routes, especially given how many Springfield students rely on the system to get to school. And she’d like casinos to help working parents by offering daycare vouchers or establishing on-site childcare.

 

Coalition members hope to meet with Sarno and city councilors to present the results of their survey and press to have them included in the host-community agreement that will go before voters. The group also wants to meet with casino executives to work out their own binding agreement. “We would like for them … to be open to a community benefits agreement with residents, not just the host agreement with the mayor and the City Council,” Hernandez said. “I really would like to see something where the residents can hold these organizations accountable.”

Ferrera said the Council is open to input from residents, and noted that its casino committee opens each of its meetings with a public speak-out. He has his own list of things he’d like to see casino developers promise, including hiring preferences for residents, job-training programs, a commitment to employing women and minority contractors, and a casino-supported public safety fund to improve safety in city schools.

Ultimately, Ferrera said, state law gives the mayor the power to negotiate a host agreement with a casino developer. The City Council can reject or approve that agreement but not alter it. But he expects the mayor will be open to input from councilors as he hammers out an agreement.

“My sense is the administration is going to want to work with the entire Council to ensure that this process is smooth and transparent,” Ferrera said. “We feel that it should be a very open and transparent host community agreement. Anything that is negotiated should be negotiated publicly so the community can see it.”

For the coalition, the goal isn’t just to see the agreement being negotiated; it’s to have residents’ voices be part of those negotiations. “Working-class people here in the city are the majority,” Shephard-Blue said. “We need to start acting like we’re the majority.”•

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