On Springfield

Hurst Broaches the Forbidden Topic: Casino

The MGM casino proposed for the South End just might be the biggest development project the city has ever seen. So with the fall elections just around the corner, why are so few City Council candidates even talking about it?

Sure, the incumbent councilors have all signaled that they’re on board—some more enthusiastically than others, but all voting to approve the host-community agreement negotiated by the Sarno administration with MGM. Still, with the exception of Council President Jimmy Ferrera’s ultimately failed efforts to firm up some details in the deal, there’s been little if any critical analysis of the plan coming from the Council chambers.

You’d think that would open up some opportunities for the challengers, who could fill the void and, just as important, draw attention to the incumbents’ overall go-along position on the casino proposal.

That’s what former Councilor Jose Tosado indicated he would do, back earlier this year when he was considering running for another term. “I have always considered myself to be a thoughtful public official and one who not only actually listens to the residents of Springfield but also considers the social/economic ramifications of public policy decisions,” Tosado told me, via email, last spring. “With the real possibility of a casino in Springfield and all the city elected officials gushing and foaming at the month at possible revenues, we need leadership that focuses on addressing and holding casino operators responsible and responsive to develop safeguards and interventions for any maladaptive social outcomes.” Alas, in the end, Tosado opted not to run.

Heck, I’m not even talking about a candidate taking a firmly anti-casino position—although I suspect such a candidate quickly would find some staunch support among the city’s electorate, given the fact that 42 percent of voters rejected the casino deal in the July referendum. But how about some candidates simply pushing past the PR campaign coming from MGM and City Hall and calling for some thoughtful discussion about what a casino could mean for the city?

Is Justin Hurst stepping up to fill that role? Last week, Hurst, a candidate for one of the Council’s five at-large seats, announced that he’s asking MGM to meet with local bar and restaurant owners to talk about the casino’s competitive advantage. “Because the liquor licenses associated with a potential MGM Springfield will be governed by the Massachusetts Alcohol and Beverage Commission and not our local License Commission MGM will be at an added advantage by not having to adhere to the so-called ‘Happy Hour’ or ‘Drink Special’ law,” Hurst said in a press release.

Massachusetts has banned “happy hour” specials since 1984, in an effort to cut down on drunk driving. But the state’s gaming legislation exempts casinos, allowing them to give free drinks to patrons—a standard practice in that industry, where liquor-loosened gamblers have an obvious appeal.

“This would obviously put our celebrated bars and restaurants both in our Downtown, on our Riverfront

and in every neighborhood in our city at a remarkable disadvantage,” Hurst said. MGM, he said, should meet with city business owners “to discuss ways to alleviate this disadvantage as soon as possible. This step would be a good faith effort for MGM to show they are willing to be good corporate neighbors especially to those bar and restaurants who may be concerned with being at a competitive disadvantage.”

It’s a start.

© 2014 The Valley Advocate