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Can MGM’s Springfield casino revitalize a poor city?

Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno hoped a casino could help his city.

Photos by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno hoped a casino could help his city.

Springfield mayor Domenic J. Sarno finally got his wish: A huge new casino is coming to the struggling city’s South End. Sarno pushed hard for the $800 million facility, sensing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to jump-start his ailing city, which suffers from poverty rates nearly triple the state level. After months of review, the gaming commission provisionally agreed to the plan last week. Now, though, comes the real test, for Sarno and other proponents of the state’s 2011 casino law: proving that a gaming palace can really foster broad-based economic revitalization.

To his credit, Sarno negotiated a fairly strong agreement, linking the casino deal to other longstanding needs in Springfield. The developer, MGM, will construct the casino in a part of the city devastated by the 2011 tornado and has agreed to give at least 35 percent of the construction jobs to city residents. The blueprints themselves are innovative; MGM proposed an urban casino that should fit in well with the surroundings, bringing new foot traffic to the underpopulated downtown. The “inside out” design will feel like an extension of the street grid rather than an isolated box; MGM also committed to preserve historic facades and create a public plaza.

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But for now, those promises are just on paper. To vindicate the city and state’s approach, Sarno and the state gaming commission have to make sure that MGM sticks to all the non-gambling aspects of the deal, even if its casino business fails to match expectations.

In other jurisdictions that have legalized casino gambling, holding companies to their promises has proven difficult. In theory, the state gaming commission has all the power it needs to punish MGM if it strays from its commitments. But in practice, as soon as MGM hires its first local worker, the political dynamic around casinos will shift. Once the casino is open and the paychecks start flowing, the company will suddenly have leverage to demand a more favorable deal from the city, or secure lower tax rates from the Legislature. It has happened before: Some California towns that counted on revenues from tribal casinos have had to agree to lower rates when the casinos claimed they couldn’t survive without them. In Louisiana, a statute meant to limit the influence of gambling by restricting it just to riverboats fell by the wayside when it hurt the casinos’ business. As Massachusetts municipalities welcome casinos, the Legislature, city leaders, and the gaming commission all need to be ready to say no if and when companies try to rewrite the rules.

Of course, if the referendum to repeal the casino law goes onto the ballot in November and passes, the questions will be moot. Wisely, the commission has decided not to formalize MGM’s license until the repeal effort is resolved. But if the Springfield casino does become a reality, it will pose a big political test for a mayor who has staked the city’s future on the gaming industry. After having rolled out the red carpet for casinos, Sarno needs to pivot to being a demanding and aggressive watchdog.

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