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Cassidy discusses motivation for resort casino

Date: 3/8/2013

By Carley Dangona

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition (ESE), believes Joshua Brooks, the founder of the fair, would be in favor of having a resort casino on the fairgrounds.

Cassidy noted. "I think that Mr. Brooks himself was a very forward-thinking guy. I think that if was alive today he would be embracing this concept as a means by which to help promulgate industry for the region, support the agricultural programming and to employ people. I have no qualms about it."

Evidence of his influence on Cassidy is apparent; Brooks' biography sits atop a piece of his office furniture, with the original stock certificates that Brooks sold to fund the ESE site.

"I try to keep Brooks as close to me as possible," Cassidy said, adding that he has two pictures of Brooks that normally hang in the office, but are currently out to be reframed.

"The facilities of the ESE were capitalized by philanthropy," Cassidy said. He explained that Brooks convinced prominent business owners such as Horace Moses from Strathmore Paper Company to fund the creation of the ESE "for the betterment of people's lives in New England — a cooperative venture to promote agriculture, industry and education," Cassidy said.

He explained the founding of ESE to Reminder Publications during an interview. "Most people forget that ESE is a 501(c)(3), a philanthropic organization. It was the beneficiary of philanthropic people through its history."

Cassidy referred to the Big E as the "biggest cultural event that happens east of the Mississippi" and stated that more than 1,300,000 people attended the 2012 fair in seventeen days and that 1,500,000 million people attend the other events. "We are by far and away the biggest draw in the region," he said.

"My concern is if the casino goes to the other side of the river and they build the slightest convention center, we'd be out of business," Cassidy stated. "These buildings — I don't know how much longer they would last. I think that the fairgrounds we know as the ESE would be dramatically diminished, if not imperiled for the future."

He cited that an engineering report from 2008 that quoted $52 million dollars to rehabilitate the ESE Coliseum building.

"In 2012, the ESE experienced its most profitable year in its history and yet, we're going to have a net income of about $1 million dollars, which is by far and away more than we ever had before," he said. Despite the success, the income is not enough to fund the renovation.

"I am in my nineteenth year here," Cassidy stated. " I've had a long time to think, contemplate and plan — what would I do as CEO? My goal was to remind people of our mission — my Board of Directors and Trustees and people throughout the New England States. Remind the other states what we do to support and promote their commerce, agriculture and industry. I really wanted to get into the fundraising business because I had realized that the only way to secure this facility for the future is to raise dramatic sums of money that we can't earn on our own."

He explained that the casino issue was "bearing down on me like a freight train with greased rails" at the time he took over as ESE CEO and that the issue had been "percolating" in the area for years.

"I had trying been trying to talk about how a casino built in Springfield, or even Palmer for that matter, could potentially undermine this organization and put its future in jeopardy and I couldn't get an audience," Cassidy said. He added that he attended all casino presentations in Springfield and tried to no avail to speak with multiple parties involved with the proposals.

He continued, "I don't blame anybody for that — I think most people take the ESE for granted, 'Well, the place has always been here.' They don't understand the capital intensity of the plant. They don't understand that when we had red ink [lost money] because it was a rainy fair, up until the early seventies, Mr. Brooks would actually write a check to bridge the gap. They don't realize that Helen Storrow gave the equivalent of about $13 million to the facility. They don't understand that Mr. Moses gave tens of millions of dollars in today's dollars, providing capital to build buildings here."

Soon after accepting the new position, the Bronson Companies knocked on his door, according to Cassidy. He explained that they talked at length, but that admittedly he had never seriously considered putting a casino on the ESE before. He liked the fact that they were "sensitive" to the Big E and understood its importance.

Cassidy described one ESE board members' reaction when he ran the idea by him. "One of the directors said to me, 'Are you out of your mind? Do you want to be the guy that brings Las Vegas to your hometown?'"

From the beginning, Cassidy wanted to be up front about the possible casino. "My job as a CEO is not to withhold info from the Board of Directors or the residents of West Springfield. I could not, in good conscience withhold this from my community. We owe it to the town to give them a chance to look at it," he said.

"Once we [Cassidy and the Board of Directors] had the opportunity to sit down and talk, I had absolute unanimity," he said.

"From my point of view it's [a resort casino] going to protect the Eastern States and there's no individual, family or group of people that will walk away from the transaction pushing a shopping cart full of hundred dollar bills," Cassidy said. "Instead the resources provided by the casino will be invested back in what is already the largest economic engine we have of its kind in this region."

Cassidy described himself as an "incredible traditionalist" and "someone who hates change," yet he understands that to sustain the ESE's future it "is time for a change."

He said, "An investment made on this address would benefit Springfield in the long-term."

Cassidy is a Western Massachusetts native whose earliest memories of the Big E stem from childhood when his grandfather would take him. His favorite memory was from Sept. 12, 1969 — his birthday where he and his father went for a helicopter ride. He still has the "Whirlybird" membership card. His office sits two miles from where he was born.

"It would be a devastating personal loss for me if ESE was compromised under my tenure," he said. "Beyond how I feel about it personally, it would be a tremendous economic loss for the region, a tremendous loss to my town and to the city of Springfield."

Cassidy cited an impact study of ESE states that it generates "a quarter of a billion dollars of commerce for Hampden County" solely from money generated from outside the county. The next study is slated for this year and will measure the entire impact, including dollars generated within the county.

If Hard Rock International is awarded the contract, then the money generated from the land lease would be used uphold ESE. Needed improvements to the infrastructure could be made, including approximately $17 million worth of work for the 1921 dormitory that houses children during the fair and was used as a shelter during the June 1, 2011 tornado, according to Cassidy. He would also like to expand the agricultural "show ring" to better serve that community.

"If we can use this partnership to build up ESE, I think the entire region benefits," he said. "It's far more dramatic than any other offering that's on the table. We're in the people business."

Cassidy said, "A casino on our property is going to be far less a casino and far more a resort." He stated that if the proposal weren't designed as a resort, ESE wouldn't be interested in it.