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Anti-casino group to begin campaign in city

Date: 5/10/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD — Dr. Mark Mullan has a number of questions about a proposed casino in downtown Springfield and the answers he has received so far have troubled him.

Mullan is part of Citizens Against Casino Gaming and he readily admits that the group's stance may not be a popular one.

As a matter of disclosure, Mullan said he is a member of the board of the New England Farmworkers Union, which had been a supporter of the failed Penn National Gaming proposal. He was not in favor of the Penn development.

A physician, Mullan recently spoke at the City Council's Casino Site Committee hearing detailing the health risks and social problems in communities hosting casinos that have been identified by various studies. He noted there are increases in alcoholism, depression, drug and gambling addictions as well as boosts in the crime rate.

He asserted that a downtown casino would attract the young, the elderly and lower income groups, the very people who can least afford losing money.

Point by point, Mullan questioned the major claims that have been made by both MGM Resorts International and Penn National Gaming in the last few months.

He doesn't believe the city has the trained workforce a casino will need for the thousands of casinos jobs, so the promise of increased employment for residents is over-stated.

"I just don't buy that," he said.

He is also concerned about property values in the city decreasing instead of increasing and said there are studies that show that as well. He stated that property values may drop between 10 and 20 percent after the arrival of a casino. Casino proponents believe that a casino will drive property values back up in the city.

MGM's host agreement stipulates the city will receive about $25 million in property taxes and other fees, but Mullan wondered how much of that figure is based on the profitability of the casino.

At the press conference announcing the host agreement with MGM, Mayor Domenic Sarno said that part of the $25 million would be used to hire more police to beef up security downtown. Mullan recalled how in the past the city hired police with federal grants, but then had to lay them off when the federal money ran out. He is worried the city might be forced into the same situation with the casino.

Whether or not a casino brings greater economic development is another point Mullan argues. He believes that small businesses will be hurt, despite the pledge to buy from local vendors. He noted that one-third of the retail business in Atlantic City, N.J. closed within four years of the opening of casinos there. Local restaurants also were greatly affected, he added.

He believes that parking and traffic worries from consumers will prevent them from shopping at South End businesses near the MGM location.

For years there has been talk about the University of Massachusetts would open some sort of satellite education facility downtown and Mullan questioned whether or not that would ever happen if there were a casino.

Besides the health and social issues, Mullan is dubious of the economic model the casino represents. Holding a print out of a newspaper story in Connecticut he noted the financial problems both casinos in that state are facing.

In a story published by The Day on Oct. 14, 2012, Foxwoods announced a restructuring plan to address its $2.2 billion debt. The story added that Foxwoods had suffered by the opening of Mohegan Sun casino as well as racetrack casinos in Rhode Island and New York.

At his recent appearance at a meeting of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of greater Springfield, Massachusetts Gaming Commission Chair Stephen Crosby noted that gaming revenues nationally are on a downward trend and that Pennsylvania casino gaming revenues, for example, had declined 9 percent in a year.

Mullan said the Atlantic City casinos are "on the decline" and he added that a Native American casino near Niagara Falls, in New York hasn't paid its host community what it promised.

Mullan questioned that a casino in Springfield "is not going to be a destination for anyone."

He said that three casinos located in the state meant that people for the eastern and southeastern parts of the state would not be traveling here for a trip to a casino as they would have their own.

If a person had a map of the Northeast and drew circles around casino sites representing 100 miles — the market area casino operators have referenced — Mullan said people would see how the markets overlap.

"My biggest problem has always been what are the chances of the casino succeeding? I don't think they will succeed," he said.

Mullan has been waiting for the city's elected officials to ask hard questions about a casino and so far, he hasn't heard many.

Acknowledging his group has an up hill fight, Mullan said its members will be speaking to community groups, launching a website and organize marches and standouts.

With City Council approval of the host agreement pending, on May 8, City Council President James Ferrera III sent a letter to Sarno asking for clarification on the amount of money the MGM casino would cost to build as he noted there have been several figures reported.

He asked that the following sentence be inserted in the host agreement, "one shall invest not less than one billion dollars in the development of the project," which was used in the Everett host agreement.

Cezar Froelich of the law firm of Shefsky & Froelich Ltd., replying for Sarno said, "Everett's approach was completely different in that their host community Agreement does not obligate the developer to build a specific type of casino resort or what elements will be included in the resort. Instead Everett chose to require a minimum investment by its developer.

"While both approaches are reasonable, the city of Springfield chose to have the safeguard of having MGM build what it promised regardless of the cost," he said.