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MGM rolls dice on cityscape design

August 19, 2018

What will you notice when you drive up I-91 to MGM Springfield, the $960 million casino complex that opens Friday?

First, it’s not in Connecticut. That’s the source of a lot of hand-wringing on our side of the state line these days, as we the citizens of a broke state will spend more of our money in Massachusetts, the commonwealth that doesn’t need our help. The cross-border cash exit grows even larger if you buy a stash of legal marijuana in one of the Bay State’s soon-to-open pot stores.

Second, if you search for a giant, monolithic building with the 125,000-square-foot gambling floor, restaurants, stores, a sports bar, a 250-room hotel, movie theater, bowling alley and convention and ballroom space inside, you probably won’t find it.

Oh, it’s all there, more than four city blocks in size on the southern end of downtown, sprawling between I-91 and Main Street. But it looks like, well, a city — an old one. MGM Springfield, you’ll notice, melds into its surroundings on all sides.

Not just melds, it actually co-opts the neighborhood.

Facing outward

The main theme inside, aside from food and gambling, is Massachusetts history, from Dr. Seuss (local native Theodore Geisel) to Indian Motorcycles to the Merriam Brothers (who joined with Webster of Connecticut to develop the dictionary) to James Naismith’s invention of basketball and the poetry of Emily Dickinson, complete with lines of dark and hopeful verse woven right into the hotel carpeting.

We’ll find out in the coming year whether the casino boosts the city’s commerce or devolves into a business island, helping only itself. But architecturally, it blends right in, using old buildings alongside new ones made to look old.

“What we’ve worked on …is to create an integrated, multi-block experience to literally embrace the rest of the city and the region,” said James Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International, “in a way that would be very outward facing and very different in design and operation than an integrated resort, which is more inward facing.”

He added, “It’s the first of its kind that I know, certainly in the United States.”

The casino has 22 entrances — compared with a half-dozen in a typical Las Vegas gaming floor. That will keep the security team on its toes but it creates a sense that the place is part of the rest of the world.

Preserving history

Landmarks built into the MGM Springfield complex include the 1895 State Armory, now an events space anchoring an outdoor plaza (not to be confused with the more famous Springfield Armory a few blocks away, cradle of the gun industry, now a national historic site); the red brick First Spiritualist Church (now a candle shop after moving a short distance from its old perch); and the facade of the old Chandler Hotel (where a couple of U.S. presidents you know nothing about stayed overnight before the Civil War).

“There are guest rooms up in the MGM that correlate exactly to the guest rooms at the Chandler Hotel,” said Bill Hornbuckle, the MGM Resorts International president.

That would not include the sixth-floor presidential suite, a 1,600-square-foot abode built into the rounded corner of the hotel, with vintage sports trophies, an unabridged Merriam-Webster dictionary a century old and a whimsical chandelier made of wild, old hats — as in Dr. Seuss, “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.”

One local history theme that seems missing is firearms, allowing MGM to bypass a controversy. The Las Vegas-based company was hit with tragedy in the mass shooting at its Mandalay Bay casinos last October, in which 59 people at an outdoor concert died.

Actual floorboards from the house of Dr. Seuss make up part of the ceiling of the sports bar, which features many original artifacts.

Other restaurants, opening onto Main Street as well as the casino floor, include the Chandler Steakhouse, named in homage, and Cal Mare, a new location for the Beverly Hills Italian-Southern California restaurant co-founded by chef Adam Sobel.

And Sobel himself was on hand Tuesday as I toured the place, tasting the pasta (too thick, he remarked to a cook) and training the staff. He’s a partner in restaurants in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Miami, Maui, Dubai and Boston — and now, Springfield.

“Initially I was unsure of why MGM picked Springfield for a destination,” he told me. “It was kind of a head-scratcher, I didn’t understand why. But then coming up here, seeing the city, understanding its history and then seeing this world-class resort, it was a no-brainer to do Cal Mare up here.”

Preview for Bridgeport?

Springfield, in fact, picked MGM, or rather Massachusetts picked the company among five bidders for a western Massachusetts license in a process that MGM wants Connecticut to follow. Supporters of the MGM proposal for Bridgeport — smaller than Springfield at $675 million, and on a spit in the harbor, not downtown — will visit Springfield and wonder whether the company can do something like it for the Park City.

So far, after years of trying, MGM hasn’t won an open process in the state legislature, though a watered-down version made it through the House this past spring. The Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, operators of Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort casinos, hold exclusive rights to run casinos in Connecticut, a claim MGM has challenged in court.

“You need only to look at Springfield to see the merit of a competitive bidding process and the folly of not availing a state of all its options,” Murren said.

“I’ll continue to fight for Bridgeport,” said Murren, who was born there, at St. Vincent’s, and whose mother lives there today. “If I could think of a city that is more deserving than Bridgeport I would name it but I cannot. ... It’s just heartbreaking really to see in my lifetime, and it started before I was born, its decline.”

That’s strong stuff, but the tribes, operating together as MMCT, see it differently as they work toward building a midsize casino in East Windsor amid legal wrangling.

“He’s either deliberately deceiving people or woefully uninformed,” MMCT spokesman Andrew Doba said. “The Massachusetts example doesn’t apply in Connecticut because of the historic agreements that have netted Connecticut nearly $8 billion.”

At the least, Connecticut ought to formally study what an open process would mean, as the tribes’ contribution to the state — 25 percent of slot revenues — falls from a high of more than $400 million in 2007 to about $270 million in the most recent fiscal year to a likely sub-$200 million annual level after Springfield opens.

On the job

Jobs loom as a factor, as the 3,000 positions at MGM — more than 1,000 in the casino itself, 800 in food and beverage — represent work that’s partly migrating from the tribal casinos, and from the Connecticut economy, as money crosses the state line.

MGM says 19.5 percent of current employees live in Connecticut. That’s great but it doesn’t make up for the flow of money to Springfield and to Massachusetts coffers — all the more if MGM’s gambit on a groundbreaking, urban-style, historic-themed resort hits the jackpot.

Groups of new employees in training moved through the entire complex on Tuesday, like tightly knotted schools of fish in the sea, nine days before a VIP event and 10 days before the public opening, as construction crews moved through their final paces.

At Chandler’s, a manager showed staffers exactly how to lay a crisp, white tablecloth. “The first thing you do ... lay the major seam through seat one,” he told his charges. In the next room, wait staff listened to a strategy talk that could have been right from an NFL film room.

Upstairs, new employees lined up to receive convention packets just like actual customers will. And on the floor of the casino, slot supervisor Michael Cruz, a transplant from MGM’s National Harbor casino in Maryland, took a break from his rounds. “Little by little we’re getting everything ready,” he said.

For him, it was a good day. “I got my apartment today. I was in Motel 6.”

That gaming floor is city within a city within a city, the nexus of a cross-state economic controversy that becomes a real business later this week in the new paradigm of historic urban design.

“If you go outside and step across the street and look back,” said Hornbuckle, the MGM president, “It screams a lot of things. Casino isn’t one of them.”

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