The state gambling commission voted to award the first Massachusetts resort casino license to MGM Resorts, an international company that greatly impressed gambling regulators with its $800 million development proposal for a tornado-damaged section of downtown Springfield.
“We’re excited by the prospect of adding 3,000 men and women to our family,” said James Murren, MGM chief executive, referring to the future employees the gambling company intends to hire in Springfield.
Members of the state’s gambling commission signed an agreement with MGM Friday in a brief ceremony in Springfield, ensuring that the company’s casino proposal would be granted the gambling resort license authorized for Western Massachusetts if an effort to repeal the state casino law fails.
While the repeal campaign is pending, MGM will not have to pay an $85 million state licensing fee, though it will pay some assessment fees to the commission, said a spokeswoman for the commission.
As the only viable applicant in the western region, MGM has for months been the presumptive winner of the license, but the company’s formal selection is a milestone for the gambling commission and for the state’s fledgling casino industry.
Mayor Domenic Sarno of Springfield, who invited casino companies to compete in his city two years ago, said the MGM project will produce “good-paying white-collar and blue-collar jobs.
“It is a pivotal time in this city,” Sarno said. “People are hungry to work.”
MGM scored well in the commission’s exhaustive review of its proposal. Commissioners praised the development’s “inside-out design,” which is intended to blend into downtown Springfield. By putting amenities such as shops and restaurants on the outside of the resort, facing the streets, MGM says it can generate foot traffic through downtown Springfield, an underused area packed with great old architecture but few human beings in the evenings.
Sarno credited MGM for designing a gambling resort ideally tailored to its host city.
“They have integrated their project into the fabric, the mosaic, the history of Springfield,” Sarno said.
The Springfield casino would remake a section of downtown known as the South End. Plans include a 25-story, 250-room hotel; a parking garage; market rate apartments; restaurants; retail stores; a cinema; bowling alley; skating rink; spa; pool and roof deck; and 125,000 square feet of gambling space with 3,000 slot machines, 75 table games, a poker room, and a high-limit VIP gambling area.
About 58 percent of voters in Springfield supported the proposal in a citywide referendum last July.
MGM was the only casino applicant in Western Massachusetts to survive the judgment of local voters. Residents of West Springfield and of Palmer killed rival casino proposals at the ballot box.
For MGM’s backers in Springfield, the only dark side to Friday’s decision is the possibility that it could all be for nothing, if the casino law falls to a repeal campaign.
The Supreme Judicial Court is expected to rule within the next several weeks whether a repeal measure may appear on the November statewide ballot. If the court allows the repeal to go forward, voters will decide in November whether to allow the casino industry to operate in the state.
In comments to reporters, Sarno said he hopes the SJC keeps the repeal off the ballot. But if the issue does come to a statewide vote, “we will make sure the public is educated on the facts and the benefits of this project,” he said.
MGM Springfield president Michael Mathis said city residents “spoke loudly when they voted yes” for the project.
“A successful repeal would mean the loss of good jobs, new economic development, and a needed revenue stream,” Mathis said in a statement. “It would also eliminate the opportunity to recapture billions of dollars currently lost to neighboring states. MGM is ready to help the Commonwealth achieve these worthy goals.”
Casino opponent Steve Abdow, a leader of the repeal effort in Western Massachusetts, said the anticasino movement is building momentum in Greater Springfield.
“We’ve been out there collecting signatures, gathering support, and sharing the truth about casinos as a failed economic strategy and the social and economic hardships they bring,” Abdow said in a statement this week. “We’re seeing first hand that the more people learn about casinos, the more they realize that Springfield and our entire Commonwealth can do better.”
The commission did not formally award the license to MGM Friday, because the formal grant of the license would trigger millions of dollars in obligations for MGM, which the company does not want to pay while the repeal effort is ongoing.
The agreement the two parties signed Friday states that the commission will schedule a meeting to award MGM the license as soon as the repeal is settled, either by the court or at the ballot box.
The Western Massachusetts resort license would be the second awarded by the gambling panel, which in February chose a Penn National Gaming proposal at Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville as the winner of the state’s sole slot machine parlor license. Construction at Plainridge is underway, and Penn officials have pledged to defend the casino law if the repeal makes the ballot.
The gambling commission next will decide between two companies competing for the Greater Boston resort casino license: Wynn Resorts in Everett and Mohegan Sun in Revere.
A license authorized for Southeastern Massachusetts is to be awarded in 2015.