SPRINGFIELD — Mayor Domenic Sarno and his advisers strongly pushed back Tuesday against pleas from the state gambling commission to slow an aggressive schedule to whittle as many as four casino proposals in the city to just one or two.
“It’s very difficult to say to residents who are hungry to work that you have to wait another six months, a year, 18 months,” said Sarno, in remarks to the commission.
Commissioners have raised concerns about whether Sarno’s quick timetable conflicted with their own, much longer process to write regulations for the gambling industry and to evaluate casino proposals.
The commission, which controls the state’s three resort casino licenses, recently invited Sarno to address its concerns in person, and moved its normal weekly meeting from Boston to Springfield to accommodate city leaders.
Sarno, his staff and consultants have outlined a speedy process to evaluate competing casino proposals from some of the biggest names in the gambling industry: MGM Resorts, Ameristar, Penn National Gaming, and Hard Rock International.
Under the city’s timetable, the companies would present their plans over the next several months. By December, Sarno plans to choose one or more to negotiate the terms under which the city would agree to host a gambling resort.
The agreement, or agreements with casino developers, would then go to the voters for their endorsement in a referendum planned for next spring, under the city’s timetable.
Springfield had expected to begin its competition early this month by asking developers to provide basic information about their companies and their proposals. Another round of more detailed submissions would be held in October. But the city delayed the start of the process at the request of the gambling commission.
The commission is concerned that Springfield intends to pick one or two final proposals before the commission finishes its intense investigation of each applicant’s finances and the moral character of key employees and company officials.
“I’m concerned about the possibility that we find unqualified someone with whom you have chosen to work,” commissioner James McHugh said.
Unqualified companies will not be allowed to compete for a casino license.
Commissioners also told city officials that they do not expect to finish writing the criteria by which they will judge casino projects until well into 2013. By choosing a project so soon, Springfield risks picking a proposal that cannot fulfill the commission’s requirements.
City officials were unmoved by the warnings, and suggested the risks are minimal. Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s top economic development officer, told the commission that “time is of the essence for us,” and that “we can’t wait around for an indefinite time.”
City officials said that the four gambling companies are tying up large swaths of the city with options to buy the land, or, in the case of Ameristar, by buying developable land outright. Having large parcels of real estate tied up for a long period will hurt economic development efforts, they said.
The site targeted by MGM, for instance, includes an area damaged by a tornado last year, said Kennedy.
Though both sides at the meeting politely spoke about the importance of cooperation, the discussion at times became intense, with city officials refusing to back away from their timetable.
Later, gambling commission chairman Stephen Crosby tried to pay a compliment to the hard job of “small-city mayors.” But Sarno objected to the term. Springfield, he said, is not a small city. “We’re the third largest city in New England,” he answered, a comment he repeated later to reporters. Springfield — with a population of about 150,000 — is the fourth largest New England city after Boston, Worcester, and Providence, according to the US Census.
Sarno told reporters after the meeting that the city’s selection process remains on hold for now, until he gets some guidance from the commission.
The commission also quizzed the city’s casino consulting firm, Shefsky & Froelich, about a possible conflict of interest. The Chicago law firm is the registered lobbyist in Illinois for MGM and Penn National, two of the firms expected to compete in Springfield.
Lawyer Michael Schaller, a member of the firm, downplayed the connection to the gambling companies and said he is awaiting guidance from the state Ethics Commission. That opinion is due any day, he said.