While downsizing and delay plagued the Springfield casino project in 2015, demolition to clear buildings from the site downtown where MGM Resorts International plans to begin building the first casino in western Massachusetts will start in mid-January.
Nine months ago photographs were taken with construction workers and machinery at the former Zanetti school building as a backdrop for MGM’s ceremonial groundbreaking for the Springfield casino. At that time no one would have been able to predict that the building would still be erect at the end of December.
A host of issues have caused, what has been billed as Springfield’s biggest single construction project and the largest economic development project in western Massachusetts history, to sputter along for most of 2015. MGM’s costs rose as the delays mounted. Not even MGM’s redesign of the hotel-casino complex could keep expenses curtailed; by the year’s end the budget for the project had increased by $150 million. Visits to Springfield by MGM officials were necessary to keep rumors that the industry giant might be looking for a way out of the project at bay, including a visit by MGM President Bill Hornbuckle to Springfield in October.
MGM’s plans were also impacted by the year delay, at least, in the start of reconstruction of Interstate 91 in Springfield. At meeting of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in June, MGM President Mike Mathis announced that due to the likelihood of traffic disruptions caused by the highway work, the construction schedule was revised delaying the opening of the casino by a year to September 5, 2018. Due to “skyrocketing” construction costs, in October MGM submitted a proposal to city officials that included plans to change the casino’s 25-story hotel tower to a six-story low rise with the same 250 rooms. Other changes included the overall size of the development being reduced by roughly 10 percent. Mathis made assurances that MGM was remained committed to its promises of “3,000 jobs, 2,000 construction jobs and a world-class resort,” according to WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
The 100 page regulatory filing in September caused friction between MGM and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, the casino project’s biggest booster, who was blindsided by the proposed downsizing. Led by Chief Executive James Murren, MGM officials insist a better overall project will result from the changes. In the weeks ahead, the changes will be scrutinized in Springfield as well as by casino industry regulators in Boston. Massachusetts Gaming Commissioner Enrique Zuniga worries that high rollers will be less attracted to the casino because of the redesign thus reducing the gambling revenue. However, MGM officials assured that only competition will impact the projected flow of gambling floor revenue of the Springfield casino. That being a real threat with competition looming just over the state line in Connecticut from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes. The two tribes that operate Connecticut’s two casinos formed MMCT Venture in Connecticut in order to compete with MGM’s $950 million mega resort in neighboring Springfield, and will directly compete with MGM Springfield by building a third casino. A lawsuit to block the competition has been filed by MGM.
MMCT Venture began its location search on October 1, with proposals being due on November 6, and the deadline for choosing a location was December 8. However, last month the chairmen of the tribes that run Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun casinos said that the decision deadline can be flexible, but an announcement is expected by the end of 2016.