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MGM woos Springfield voters

A model of MGM’s casino resort proposed for Springfield was on display at its city headquarters in December.

NANCY PALMIERI FOR THE GLOBE/FILE

A model of MGM’s casino resort proposed for Springfield was on display at its city headquarters in December.

SPRINGFIELD — Corporate bigwigs from MGM are pitching their casino project relentlessly, in television commercials, in newspaper ads, and on the Internet. They have cut checks to local causes, solicited endorsements from influential groups, and have personally carried a message into several hundred community meetings: If you like our proposal, why not tell the mayor?

The attention and the money that MGM Resorts Inter­national has lavished on Springfield since August in support of the company’s $800 million proposal is part of an unprecedented citywide campaign, designed by high-octane political advisers and operatives, including President Obama’s media consultant.

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“What MGM is doing in Springfield would be the template for anyone who wants go in anywhere,” marveled political strategist Anthony Cignoli.

Other communities where casinos are proposed — such as Boston, Everett and Milford — can expect similar campaigns later this year from rich gambling companies that must win a local referendum to complete their applications for a state ­casino license.

In Springfield, often perceived as the forgotten little brother among the state’s major cities, the personal attention from MGM has played well.

“They’re making us feel like we’re Boston,” Cignoli said.

MGM has spent roughly $10 million on its Springfield casino effort, totaling all costs, the company confirmed. MGM president Bill Hornbuckle said the figure includes an estimated $1 million on advertising.

“If we’re going to go in, we’re going to go all in,” Hornbuckle said in a Globe interview. “We’re not going to leave anything to chance. We have too much invested in this in both personal time and focus.”

The campaign was born last summer, when MGM surveyed the city’s political landscape and saw an obstacle to its planned gambling resort: A ­rival proposal from Penn ­National Gaming was perceived to have powerful local connections with city officials who ­intended to support just one ­casino project in Springfield.

MGM responded by taking its case to the voters, to build public support through a campaign guided by scientific polling of the electorate.

“We have had literally over 300 grass-roots community meetings,” Hornbuckle said. “We set up an office early on, like any other good political campaign. We have a fairly substantive social media campaign. We’ve attacked it from every angle. We’ve polled it consistently to make sure our messaging was correct relative to jobs. . . . It’s a campaign that represents clearly who we now are.”

But MGM’s overpowering voice opens the firm to criticism it is trying to buy a victory and makes it clear how difficult it is for opponents — generally underfunded citizen and church groups — to compete.

“It’s beyond David and ­Goliath,” said Les Bernal, director of a national anticasino group, Stop Predatory Gambling. “These guys will spend whatever it takes to win.”

MGM and Penn have each proposed pricy gambling resorts in downtown Springfield. MGM’s plan would remake several tornado-damaged blocks in the city’s South End. Penn’s proposal for the North End, offered in partnership with local businessman Peter Picknelly, chairman of Peter Pan Bus Lines, is for a hotel and casino resort on land occupied by a bus terminal and the headquarters of The Republican newspaper.

Mayor Domenic Sarno is in negotiations with both developers. He is expected to choose just one project to go forward as the city’s applicant in the race for casino development rights in Western Massachusetts. The Springfield project, if approved by voters in a referendum, would compete with proposals by Hard Rock Inter­national in West Springfield, and Mohegan Sun in Palmer.

MGM’s campaign strategy is to build enough community support to make it politically difficult for Sarno to overlook the company’s bid when deciding which casino proposal should move on to a citywide referendum and then to the state Gaming Commission. The company’s consultants include Carole Brennan, a former aide to Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston, now at the law firm Brown Rudnick; Dewey Square Group, which focuses on public affairs and political strategy; and Ventry Associates, led by local political operative Dennis Murphy, a former Springfield state representative with a keen sense of the region’s politics. MGM has also hired GMMB, the media company that twice helped Obama win the White House.

Penn National has not tried to match MGM’s advertising dollars in Springfield, a strategic decision by a company unafraid of dropping huge sums to influence a vote. MGM and Penn each spent tens of millions of dollars fighting each other in a gambling referendum last year in Maryland.

“We’re hoping the community will dig into the substance of our proposal, as opposed to the style or the fluff of a glitzy media campaign,” said Eric Schippers, a Penn senior vice president. “You’ve seen from Penn a modest ad buy to build some awareness, but most of that has been to drive people to our website where they can get a better sense of the substance of our proposal and why it’s the best plan for Springfield.”

Penn would not say how much it is spending on ads.

From late last summer until early this month, records show, MGM outspent Penn $323,000 to $54,000 on ads at WWLP-TV, the Springfield station that gets the largest share of political adver­tising, local observers said.

“For this market, that is an insane amount of money at one station,” media consultant ­Adam Wright said of MGM’s spending. Wright is founder of Advertus Media, based in Westfield, and is not working for either of the rivals in Springfield.

“MGM has clearly dominated the media,” Wright said, commenting broadly on the campaign. “They started with a very, very heavy online campaign, and not only were they buying local, online media, but also significant amounts of geo-targeted national media. You couldn’t turn on a YouTube channel, for example, without seeing an MGM video first.”

MGM has also sought goodwill through high-profile charitable sponsorships and donations, such as a $50,000 gift to the South End Community Center. It has paid to support civic events such as fireworks and Christmas lights and is sponsoring the Springfield Falcons minor league hockey team, promising to donate more than 1,000 tickets to nonprofit youth and family groups in the area. Last month, MGM sponsored an issue of the local African-American news magazine, Point of View, contributing several articles on its commitment to diversity in the workplace.

The MGM effort “is exemplary in recognizing the grass roots and the grass-tops, the opinion makers and the decision makers that live in the city and need to be reached out to,” said Cignoli, who was part of a local group that tried to bring a casino to Holyoke. “I’ve talked to well over 100 folk — community council presidents and members, civic association folks, people from charitable organizations, you name it — they’ve all had personal sitdowns with MGM.”

Many of these community meetings have been run by the company’s top managers, such as Hornbuckle and MGM chief executive Jim Murren.

“The MGM executives are here so much and so all over town, you wonder who’s running MGM,” said Cignoli.

With Penn picking up its campaign, casino advertising is inescapable in Springfield, ­lamented Michael Kogut, chairman of Citizens Against Casino Gaming, a local group that is ­resisting the proposals through community organizing.

“I was on the local AM radio station the other morning,” Kogut said recently. “Intertwined with our discussion of the reasons for not having a casino in Springfield are the ads for Penn and MGM.

“There’s no amount of money that can ever combat or overcome what the casino lobbyists and developers will spend,” he said. “This is the game they play before gaming begins.”

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter
@bostonglobemark.

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