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Councilor Williams releases statement on casino

Date: 2/22/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD — City Council Vice President Bud Williams released a statement on Feb. 19 addressing his concerns about the hiring practices and economic development issues surrounding the two casino proposals for the city.

His statement comes at the beginning of the process to negotiate host agreements by Mayor Domenic Sarno.

The following is Williams' statement:

"Many people in Springfield have become very focused on the potential development of a casino in Springfield. Certainly the idea of $800 million or more being invested in our downtown, along with the creation of a great many jobs, is something that should rightly claim our attention.

"At the same time, as we become understandably excited about the potential benefits of this kind of development, we need to retain our collective faculties and soberly consider what the actual arrangements being made are, and how the casino development, if it is built, will actually impact Springfield, and Springfield people, over the long term.

"I am not saying that we should be opposed to casino development; What I am saying is that the arrangements and decisions we make now are ones we may have to live with for a long time, so we should be careful and think ahead.

"For instance, the statement has been made by representatives of one casino, that 35 percent of their employees are members of minority groups. This is fine, as far as it goes, but is it really what we want. For instance, we still don't know from that statement how many of those people are from the local areas.

"I would rather say that, as a condition of getting a license, 50 to 75 percent of employees will be people who were Springfield residents prior being hired, and that there is a mechanism, operationally independent of the casino, for rescinding the casino license if at any time this stops being the case. We have seen to many situations where our people have gotten the jobs for a little while, and are then eased out quietly. We don't need to see that again.

"In addition many of us are concerned about the goods and services that will be required to run a casino. We understand that these facilities are parts of a larger chain of casinos, but we would like to see a substantial portion of the manufacturing of consumable products used by any casino done locally. This should also be required by the city and state as a condition of the license.

"Further, we need to be clear about the relationship between the casino and local businesses. There has been a great deal of talk about how local businesses may be able to engage in the casino in some way. For all we know, however, what is envisioned is allowing Red Rose or Mom and Rico's to have a satellite stand in the casino "mall," which in actuality will be dominated by national chain vendors shared with all the casino chain's other locations. I don't think we should find that kind of plan acceptable.

"Instead it seems to be that we should require that any casino be a place of gaming, and that other functions, like restaurants and theaters, be made available to casino guests through connections with local businesses.

"This could easily be done. People could visit any of many existing, or even new stores and restaurants along Main Street or at the Basketball Hall of Fame complex. We could provide a trolley service to shuttle them there. But to make sure it happens this should be made a requirement of any license.

"Beyond this, the two developers have talked about how positive their impact would be on downtown Springfield. In some ways they are very much correct, but in others we may need to look more closely. Both proposals are talking about demolishing a number of historic buildings. We may need development, but there must be a way this can be done without losing our heritage.

"Finally, as we talk about casino developments around the country, many of them have been built with "Community Betterment Agreements" to insure that the impacts on the community are moderated with programs to prevent gambling abuse, restore vacant and deteriorated historic buildings, provide for housing development, and other social needs. This is important, and a number of organizations are already working on this.

"My position is that we should make this an integral part of the development process, and insure that there is independent, community-based process to insure that the agreement is implemented and actually benefits the community.

"With all these provisions in place, and I suggested we get them in place quickly, many of the objections that people have to casinos, based on the way they have been developed in some other cities, will have been addressed. It is my hope that, when that is done, many of the people with concerns in these areas can come together and help make the Springfield proposal the success it can be."