SPRINGFIELD — As many as four top-tier casino developers have informed Springfield officials that they would like to build a gambling resort in this struggling city on the Connecticut River, a level of interest unmatched in other parts of the state that will force developers into direct competition even before they apply for a state license.
“We’re ground zero, baby,” Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno gushed during an extended interview.
While several Bay State communities have slammed the door on casinos, Sarno put out the welcome mat in the spring, saying he would “fight tooth and nail” to bring a casino to Springfield. Such gung-ho receptiveness, combined with a prime location on a major north-south interstate just off the Massachusetts Turnpike, has reshaped the competition for the sole gambling resort license in the state’s western region, and vaulted Springfield into a leading contender.
Eric Schippers, spokesman for Penn National Gaming, one of the companies interested in Springfield, said Sarno’s comments “sent a very important signal when we were doing due diligence on sites.”
“You have to be able to win a local election,” said Schippers, referring to the requirement that casino proposals earn the endorsement of local voters in a referendum. “There have been some obvious false starts in other communities.”
Municipal officials have great power to prevent casino developments within their borders. The Foxborough Board of Selectmen, most notably, stonewalled two billionaires, blocking a casino proposal by Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn on land belonging to NFL owner Robert Kraft. Wynn dropped the proposal after the May town elections only strengthened the anti-casino tilt of the board.
“After the example set by Kraft and Wynn, no developer wants to go through that again,” said Clyde Barrow, a casino expert at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. “Having a favorable political climate is going to be very big.”
The 2011 state casino law was designed to promote competition as a way to encourage the most innovative and lucrative projects. The state Gambling Commission can issue up to three resort casino licenses, no more than one in each of three regions of the state.
So far, there is little competition in the Greater Boston region, now that Wynn has pulled out. Suffolk Downs, which has partnered with Caesars Entertainment in East Boston, is currently the only contender with a detailed plan on the table. Developer David Nunes has announced plans for a Milford casino, but has not yet revealed a financing partner.
But in the west, the casino law is working as intended: in addition to all the interest in Springfield, the owners of the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut are pursuing a gambling resort in Palmer.
Las Vegas-based Ameristar Casinos was the first to plant its flag in Springfield, where the company paid $16 million for 41 acres of land.
Strong local political support “puts an operator at ease in making such a significant investment,” said Troy Stremming, an Ameristar senior vice president. Ultimately, the winning bidder would have to commit to spending at least $500 million on a casino project.
“Mayor Sarno has been very welcoming to operators and is eager to get as many projects proposed as he can,” Stremming said. “If I was in his position I would be doing exactly the same thing. I would want as many options for success as I could have.”
Stremming said his company likes locating its facilities in populous areas; Springfield is the state’s third-largest city.
“That population base is not only your clientele, but your workforce,” he said.
Penn has not yet announced a specific casino site in Springfield, but Schippers confirmed that the company has had talks with businessman Peter Picknelly, chairman and chief executive of Peter Pan Bus Lines, about a downtown site Picknelly is promoting for a casino.
City officials confirm that two more casino companies, MGM Resorts and Hard Rock International, are also seriously exploring bids in Springfield.
“We’re very happy with the lineup — they’re major players,” said Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief development officer and Sarno’s point man in dealing with the casino interests.
MGM in January announced it would build in Brimfield, but withdrew after deciding the site did not fit its plans. MGM officials have been spending time in Springfield, and the company was a corporate sponsor of the local Fourth of July celebration.
Hard Rock originally focused on Holyoke, but moved on after the city’s new mayor, Alex Morse, a casino opponent, said he would not negotiate with the company over the terms under which the city would accept a gambling resort. Under state law, casino developers cannot apply for a state license until they have reached an agreement with the host community.
Neither MGM nor Hard Rock has announced sites. MGM, in a statement, acknowledged the company has had “very productive meetings with community leaders in several cities in the region, including Springfield.”
A Hard Rock corporate spokesman did not return a call for comment.
Sarno’s administration has encouraged casino companies to consider building downtown to spur riverfront development. “We’ve mentioned that we don’t want a casino to stay behind the casino walls,” Kennedy said. “What we want is for a casino to step outside the walls and become part of the community.”
Sarno believes city voters will accept the right casino project, but that won’t happen without a fight.
The Council of Churches of Greater Springfield is promising to muster opposition to any casino proposal in the city, said the council’s president, Timothy Paul Baymon.
Baymon said a troubled urban area such as Springfield “does not need the increased crime, increased prostitution, the bankruptcies, and the domestic violence committed by addicted gamblers.”
“We plan to defeat it,” he declared.
There has been much speculation in Springfield over how Sarno would deal with multiple proposals. He said such competition can only work to the city’s advantage.
“Let them play against each other for the benefit of the city of Springfield,” he said brightly, obviously relishing the idea of rich gambling companies trying to outdo one another for the chance to negotiate a host agreement.
He said he will only negotiate with the company that has the best proposal, once all of the projects have been vetted with the help of experts, through a public process that will include presentations to the community by the developers at public hearings. The city has hired Chicago law firm Shefsky & Froelich as its consultant on casino issues.
“We will scrutinize, looking for the most viable economic development at the most viable location, and that’s the horse that we will ride to the voters and to the Gaming Commission,” said Sarno.
The 49-year-old mayor, a Springfield-born child of Italian immigrants, is a politician in the rough-cut mold of an old neighborhood ward boss. He sits at an enormous desk stacked with papers, in a cluttered City Hall office well on its way to qualifying for a future episode of “Hoarders.”
The mayor said casino companies love his city’s location, close to the Hartford and Worcester population centers, as well as to nearby highways. He swells with hometown pride about “our outstanding water and sewer,” which, he boasts, “will rival anyplace in the country.”
On the wall behind Sarno’s desk, looking utterly out of place, is a century-old painting that came with the office — the “Birth of Springfield,” illustrating a quiet green valley. The mayor appreciates the obvious symbolism: After years of declining city revenue, budget and service cuts, and a damaging tornado last year, the city is due for an economic rebirth, he said. “I feel this is going to be a positive game-changer for the city of Springfield.”