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Officials plead for regional consideration

Date: 3/7/2014

By Carley Dangona

WEST SPRINGFIELD – Attendance was high, as were emotions, at the March 3 meeting of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) as speakers vied for the MGM Springfield proposal to be viewed from a regional perspective rather than an individual one.

Many officials attended the hearing that took place in the auditorium of West Springfield Middle School from 4 to 8 p.m., including state Sens. Gale Candaras and James Welch, state Rep. Michael Finn, and numerous representatives for the town of West Springfield.

Noticeably absent were officials and residents from Agawam. The meeting was delayed nearly 15 minutes due to MGC Commissioner Bruce Stebbin’s late arrival.

The public officials spoke first and then residents. A second meeting was not required since everyone had his or her chance to speak. Each person was allotted five minutes and was not allowed to repeat the sentiments of prior speakers. More than 80 people contributed to the forum. The overall theme was that the MGM Springfield project, if chosen, be approached from a regional perspective.

“This is a second public information meeting for the Western Massachusetts site that we commissioners thought was important to have. The legislation calls for, mandates, a final meeting in the host community before a decision is made on a license in any community. In this case it would be Springfield, but we felt that this was so important – there are so many people with opinions – that we wanted to have a second meeting where we would invite anybody that had an appropriate opinion to speak to this issue,” Stephen Crosby, MGC chairman, said in his opening remarks.

West Springfield Mayor Edward Sullivan was the first to speak, setting the tone for the meeting.

He said, “We understand this is a regional project, not a Springfield project. After review, it doesn’t seem to demonstrate adequate infrastructure improvements; adequate facilities for bicycles and pedestrians [commuting between the two cities].”

He continued, “We know that some of the other government agencies also agree with this and I agree with their comments – Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. The project should identify and rectify barriers to walking and bicycling in the area, particularly along the routes that will bring people to the development.”

Attorney Jonathan Silverstein of Kopelman and Paige, P.C., representing West Springfield, said, “A lot more can be done to make this project what it really could be.”

Jason Gray from Douglas G. Peterson & Associates Inc., an engineering firm, said, “Transportation is no longer about moving vehicles from point A to B. It’s about being green and connecting communities.”

Jim Zack, senior project manager for the West Springfield Department of Public Works and lifetime resident, said, “We will be in the bullseye of this development. We need to look at this as transportation, not just traffic and engineering.”

He noted that the facility would not close. “We need to look beyond just Friday evening and Saturday peak hours,” Zack said. He added that he does not agree with the “lookback approach” and that these considerations “need to be done ahead of time.”

West Springfield Town Council Vice President Brian Griffin said, “One parking garage [as is planned for the MGM casino] on a one-way street is totally inadequate.”

West Springfield town attorney Simon Brighenti Jr. said, “One of the reasons we’re still in negotiations [for the Surrounding Community Agreement] is because there are so many expected impacts.”

West Springfield Police Chief Ronald Campurciani traveled to Hollywood, Fla. to visit the Hard Rock casinos when Hard Rock International pitched its proposal for West Side. He researched the effects of having a casino in town or across the river in Springfield while there.

“It’s certainly going to increase our call for service,” he said.

Campurciani commented that there are already 16 hotels and motels on Route 5 and another two on Memorial Avenue and was concerned the number would increase.

“The problems never got as big as they [the communities in Florida] imagined because they had the opportunity to put things in place before the casino came in,” the chief stated.

Finn’s address of the commission was brief. He said, “In respect to West Springfield’s position and the casino in Springfield: Please don’t let the scars of Springfield’s economic facelift be seen in West Springfield. Please do all you can to make sure our interests are protected as much as those in the host city itself.”

Candaras, a supporter of the casino, addressed the importance of communication between government departments.

“My concern relates basically to traffic concerns in a very small and very tight area. I think it’s long past time when every part of the government should be talking to each other about what is going to happen in this tight little area. I have not seen that happen. I have expressed my concern about the type of siloing that typically occurs. We simply can’t afford to have that type of siloing in this type of project. It’s too important.”

Candaras reference a meeting regarding the repair of the Interstate 91 viaduct that she attended last week.

She said, “There was no mention of the fact that this viaduct work is going to go on less than half a city block away from this major endeavor, from this casino construction, which is going to be huge. They [MassDOT engineers] talked about diverting traffic from the viaduct to East Columbus and West Columbus Avenues – you know the area, you know how narrow those streets are. My concern is that MGM is going to start constructing and will in fact construct a beautiful casino and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will promptly direct all traffic away from it.”

Candaras added that the Springfield District Court is already in need of more parking and will be further affected by the casino and viaduct construction. “We have a stranded Hall of Justice.”

Longmeadow resident Ted Steiger called the project, “These were never meant to be destination casinos. These are convenience casinos meant to prey upon locals and the less fortunate among us. This is going to be a convenience casino that sucks the economic lifeblood out of our economy.”

Susan LaFlamme a West Springfield resident and owner of the Ye Olde Butcher Shop, expressed her concern that young adults would be lured into the bright lights of the casino because there’s “not much to do locally.”

Carol Kerr, a Springfield resident said, “For me this is not about gambling. I personally am comfortable with as entertainment. While I recognize there will always be a certain percentage of the population who have a problem, whether it’s gambling, drugs, or alcohol, I don’t believe it’s our right nor our duty to attempt to prohibit on any grounds.”

Kerr said that all the local venues would benefit from the casino as well as the thousands of workers in the area. She said it’s about “quality of life.”

She continued, “What I see is opportunity for jobs, for people, for business and for the cities and towns. Since it is an entirely new business model for a resort casino to be pasted in a downtown area, there’s no direct data to confirm what effects it will have.”

Kerr concluded, “It is our job, not MGM’s to maintain the growth well. MGM is giving us tools, what we build with it is entirely up to us.”