History did not repeat itself. With visions of dollars to city coffers dancing in their heads, Springfield voters weren’t about to chuck away MGM International’s $800 million casino opportunity.The MGM agreement got Springfielders’ seal of approval in Tuesday’s referendum campaign, 58 percent to 42 percent.
MGM Springfield President Bill Hornbuckle called the outcome a “landslide;” Mayor Domenic Sarno argued that the vote brings “fiscal stability,” even though that prospect would only be possible if the Massachusetts Gaming Commission gives Springfield the go-ahead for the western Massachusetts license. Palmer and West Springfield are also in contention.
Only about a quarter of the city’s 98,000 registered voters were motivated enough about the issue to go to the polls, a dismal turnout considering how much a casino would reshape the city.
Twice in the mid-1990s Springfield rejected casinos. The difference today? MGM had tons of money to spread around. Citizens Against Casino Gaming, the local anti-casino group, only had a pittance by comparison, some of it out of the pockets of its chairman, Michael Kogut. So it was not difficult for a multinational corporation to out hustle the locals by sponsoring the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, bringing in top-drawer entertainers for concerts, saturating the airwaves, and passing out limitless swag to help secure a “yes” vote. MGM spent $1 million on its “Yes for Springfield” referendum campaign alone.
MGM had the firm and vocal support of Sarno. Citizens Against Casino Gaming had no comparable local noteworthy to galvanize voters. Former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, a vocal casino opponent, did not cut it. Now in his 80s, popular former mayor Charlie Ryan, who helped lead the 1990s anti-casino fight, did not dive into the fray this time around. Nor did the Catholic Church, which also was a potent force during those earlier “no” campaign drives.
Neither Sarno nor MGM would debate casino opponents before the Tuesday’s vote. Casino supporters relentlessly accentuated the positives: cash payments to the city, 3,000 permanent jobs, and a downtown renaissance. The arguments against casinos — increased crime, gambling addiction, and the dubious casino experiences of communities like Atlantic City, Detroit, and Bethlehem never got any traction in Springfield. Even questions raised about MGM’s payments to the city based on a lower value than the casino’s actual worth generated little interest.
Despite the defeat, Springfield’s anti-casino group will keep calm and carry on. Kogut vowed to continue to investigate the city’s dealings with MGM and delve further into the legality of the mayor appearing in pro-MGM ads paid for by the casino behemoth.
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