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MGM Grand pulls out all the stops in pitch for downtown casino

Date: 8/27/2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD — It was a case of shock and awe and the question is "Will there be more to come?"

There are still two casino companies that have looked at the city, Penn National and Hard Rock, which have yet to make a formal announcement about their intentions.

Just two days after officials from Ameristar Casinos Inc. made a presentation to the Casino Site Committee armed with a vice president and a print-out of a PowerPoint presentation, MGM Grand revealed its plans for a three-block casino complex in the city's South End.

Staged at the MassMutual Center, the near hour-long event featured CEO Jim Murren, theatrical lighting, huge screens showing slides and videos and a catered lunch for the invited guests, each of who received a large gift basket.

Security was tight with five Springfield police officers standing outside and MassMutual security insides. Standing on the sidewalk was a young woman who was handing out a flyer calling attention to a 2009 report by the New Jersey Gaming Enforcement about the company's alleged links to an "unsuitable" Chinese casino partner.

Murren, who emphasized his regional roots he went to school at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. — simply stated, "We want to be here."

Although not shying away from the idea of building a casino, Murren and Bill Hornbuckle, president of MGM Springfield, spoke much more in terms of revitalizing downtown by having a 14-acre location that would preserve some of the historic buildings, have a separate entertainment and shopping area from the casino itself and include market-rate housing.

The proposal is the casino would take up much of the three-block area from State and Main streets to Union and Main streets to Columbus Avenue. There would be an air bridge between the former MassMutual building at State and Main streets connecting the casino with the MassMutual building.

MGM Grand would run a trolley system around the downtown connecting Union Station, the Quadrangle and the Basketball Hall of Fame with the casino.

Both men emphasized they do not want to drive out the existing businesses in the South End, but instead want to incorporate those businesses into the complex.

To answer questions, the company launched a website,, and to win hearts and minds have undertaken an advertising campaign about their plans.

People seemed impressed and there was standing room only. City Council President James Ferrera III told Reminder Publications the announcement was "a very powerful and professional presentation."

Ferrera was joined by fellow councilors John Lysak, Kenneth Shea and Timothy Rooke. Mayor Domenic Sarno and Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy were not at the event as City Solicitor Edward Pikula stated in an email, "It has come to the attention of the Law Department that MGM Resorts has sent an invitation to an announcement/luncheon to be held at the MassMutual Center on Wed. Aug. 22, 2012 at 11:00 a.m. Department heads are requested to refrain from attending so as to avoid any appearance of impropriety."

Sarno did release a statement through a press release following the event. "These are exciting economic development times in Springfield. I look forward to entertaining and reviewing all development plans from expected casino operators as they maximize their efforts to put the most overall beneficial proposal to our city forward," he wrote.

On Aug. 27, Sarno was scheduled to have separate closed-door meetings with representatives of Ameristar, MGM Grand, Hard Rock and Penn General, the casino companies that expressed interest in the city.

Murren also pulled a trigger that officials from Ameristar have not yet of this writing: the company wrote the $400,000 check to the Commonwealth to grant them access to state officials in order to develop a host agreement proposal with the city.

To compare the two companies, the Springfield site would be Ameristar's tenth casino. MGM Grand's properties include some of the best-known casino resorts in the country, including the Bellagio, the MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay and The Mirage in Las Vegas, Nev. as well as 15 additional locations in Nevada, Mississippi and Michigan. The company also has partial ownership in other casinos.

The price tag for the Ameristar casino was set "at least $500,000" by Troy Stremming, its vice president of Governmental Affairs. The estimated cost of the MGM Grand site is $800,000.

Another more subtle surprise was the introduction of the MGM Grand presentation by James Rooney, the executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority that owns the MassMutual Center. Although Rooney did not endorse the MGM Grand proposal, he has not appeared in conjunction with Ameristar officials, although that company has also spoken of partnering for entertainment offerings with the MassMutual Center.

Hornbuckle said the company expects to recoup 30 to 40 percent of the gaming money that flows from the Springfield and Hartford, Conn. markets to the two Connecticut casinos. He said the target market for MGM Springfield is the million people who live within a 100-mile radius around Springfield.

Although Stremming said last week the Ameristar casino will have 4,000 slot machines, Hornbuckle said the MGM Springfield will have 3,000, but he said people should consider "the totality of the project rather than [it being] a slot house."

When asked about the MGM Grand property at Foxwoods in Connecticut, he explained that it was just a licensing agreement to use the name and MGM Grand doesn't own the facility or have an interest in it.

Hornbuckle said he believes the earliest the facility in Springfield could be built would be 2016.

The "big picture," Hornbuckle said isn't just fulfilling Springfield's needs but also those standards that will be set by the Commonwealth.

"We see a very, very unique opportunity to create an outward looking environment that respects what's here and activates a community that so desperately we think needs to be activated," Hornbuckle said.