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MGM, Penn pitch traffic improvements, entertainment offerings

Date: 3/14/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD — The representatives of Penn National Gaming and MGM Resorts International agreed on one point at a presentation of each casino developer's traffic and entertainment plans: Springfield is lucky to have such companies eager to build a casino here.

Over the course of the two and a half hour discussion on March 11 at CityStage, the delegations from each company, both led by their respective CEOs, offered compliments to one another, agreed on several points and politely applauded each other's presentations.

Peter Carlino, chairman and CEO of Penn National, even expressed confidence that Springfield would be the location for the sole casino license in Western Massachusetts.

"Unless there is a very, very foolish judgment, it will come here," he said.

William Hornbuckle, president of MGM and its chief marketing officer, said that if Hard Rock International is awarded the license for its West Springfield proposal, all Springfield will hear is "a great sucking sound."

He added the city will "get some of the traffic and none of the benefits."

Both companies also made the similar point that either casino must be an attraction that brings people to downtown Springfield.

Those were the points of agreement as both companies emphatically maintained they would be the best choice for the city and the region.

Make no mistake though these companies have clashed before over a casino license, ­ most recently in a multi-million dollar struggle in Maryland.

Kenneth Rosevear, president of MGM Resorts Development, led his company's discussion on traffic impact.

Based on survey work, Rosevear said the MGM casino complex in the South End should attract 8 million visitors a year with 3.7 million vehicle trips. Of that amount, 35 percent would be over the weekend and 87 percent would be outside of 5 to 7 p.m. rush hours. He believes the morning slowdowns along the Longmeadow curve of Interstate 91 would not be made worse by the casino.

He added that 88 percent of the traffic would come from the interstate highways.

MGM has a list of improvements it would undertake to improve the traffic flow. Those include making changes to two ramps of Interstate 91, the addition of new signage, widening Columbus Avenue at Bliss Street, restripe Union Street and add a barrier to control left turns and add a left turn lane onto State Street.

The casino complex will disperse traffic through Howard, Union and State streets, he explained.

The casino would be linked to other attractions, such as the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Armory Museum as well as Union Station by a trolley service. MGM would underwrite that and would not draw revenue away from the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, Rosevear said.

The casino complex will be unique, as it will have eight entrances for pedestrians.

James Baum, senior vice president of Project Development at Penn National, said that casino expected more than 4 million visitors a year but indicated there would be little improvements necessary for access to that casino.

In an animated film, he illustrated that people coming from Interstate 291, for example, would simply take the existing Dwight Street exit, and turn right onto lower Liberty Street to go to Penn's Hollywood Casino, where the Peter Pan Bus terminal and The Republican building now stand. The only changes would be landscaping along the route and new signage.

Baum said that computer simulations indicated that even with peak Friday evening traffic, motorists on city streets would have a 30 second or less wait time at any intersection.

Baum noted the proposed air walk linking Union Station to the casino has been scrapped, as it would have required people going to the casino to walk through the station's parking garage.

When asked about construction traffic at the MGM site, Rosevear said workers would be shuttled in and out to avoid tying up traffic and parking spaces. Baum said Penn would make an arrangement with the Springfield Parking Authority.

James Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, a member of the panel who asked questions, wondered where visitors to the MassMutual Center would park when there is a game or show there. Hornbuckle said those patrons would be able to park in the MGM garage.

Another member of the panel, Al Chwalek, director of the city's Department of Public Works, praised both companies for their traffic research and willingness to work with city officials.

On the entertainment side, both companies are not planning to have significant entertainment venues on their sites.

Penn National will use a restored Paramount Theater as its entertainment venue and is currently entering into discussions with the management of the MassMutual Center. Jay Snowden, Penn's senior vice president of Regional Operations, said there was a memorandum of understanding in place with CityStage and Symphony Hall.

Snowden said, "[Penn] wants to be seen as a partner. We don't want to cannibalize existing businesses."

He added that the company will meet regularly with CityStage/Symphony Hall management to review the events calendar and will not offer competing attractions.

Snowden said the Paramount Theater would feature an entertainment attraction every week. He showed slides of performers who have played at Penn properties, including P. Diddy, ZZ Top and Pat Benatar, among others.

"The key here is frequency," he said.

By not having any entertainment venues in the casino, Snowden said it would force casino visitors to the Paramount and to see the city.

Snowden said the company would seek the return of the Tip Off Classic to the MassMutual Center, a move for which Rooney expressed approval.

He explained the range of the casino would be a 100-mile radius including the markets of Hartford, Conn., and Albany, N.Y.

"Bring [customers from that area] in and showcase all that the region offers. That's the strategy," he explained.

Snowden said that every Peter Pan Bus would show a 10-minute video highlighting all of the regional attractions as part of their plan. Peter Picknelly, president of the bus company and Penn's partner in the casino, explained that he has arranged with Greyhound Buslines for the creation of casino trip packages and is in conversation with Amtrak for a similar feature.

Anika Gaskins, vice president of marketing at Penn, explained the company has along history working with the local and regional tourism and convention boards to make the casino part of the regional tourism effort. Brochures and social marketing as well as in-room television advertising would be used to promote not just the casino, but attractions throughout the region.

James Murren, CEO of MGM, said, "Entertainment is in our DNA" and recounted the casino's history from its start with the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nev.

"We can reach every single 'A List' performer," he said and included the Rolling Stones and Barbra Streisand on that list.

Murren, who attended Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., recalled the Springfield Civic Center was once "an entertainment Mecca" that attracted performers such as Elvis Presley, The Who and the Grateful Dead. He even displayed the ticket stub for a Kinks concert he attended at the Civic Center.

Murren said that 75 percent of the revenue generated by MGM's Las Vegas, Nev., properties are from entertainment, not gaming.

It's MGM's goal to return the now MassMutual Center to its former prominence and the company already has a memorandum of agreement in place with MassMutual and CityStage/Symphony Hall. Hornbuckle said the company would produce and underwrite 12 events a year divided among the three venues.

The company announced last week it would bring hip hop star Pitbull to the MassMutual Center as well as professional bull riding. Hornbuckle said the company has also signed Boyz II Men to Symphony Hall later this spring.

"We're not talking about doing something. We're doing," Hornbuckle added.

Hornbuckle said the reason the MassMutual Center cannot get the acts that appear at the two Connecticut casinos has to do with exclusivity contracts with those acts. He said that MGM has the ability to "break that lock" by telling performers that if they want to appear at one MGM property, that Springfield will be included on their tour.

Like Penn, MGM plans to work with other attractions in the region and has signed a memorandum of understanding with Six Flags New England, Hornbuckle added.

Like Snowden, Murren said that collaboration with current attractions is vital.

When Rooney asked how people could be assured that both companies would do what they are promising, Carlino suggested asking officials in the cities in which Penn has casinos.

Snowden added, "Don't just take it for granted what we are telling you ... reach out and talk to the mayor of Toledo [Ohio] and see if we did what we said we were going to do."

Murren said he liked the ideas Picknelly expressed about marketing the region through transportation and said, "We will win and we will be talking to Peter he's a businessman."