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Springfield casino seeks to blend into historic downtown

Officials speak about the relocation of a historic church to make way for Springfield’s new casino.
Officials speak about the relocation of a historic church to make way for Springfield's new casino.

SPRINGFIELD — When it opens in 2018, the MGM Resorts casino will make a historical claim hard to imagine amid thousands of flashing, whirling, slot machines: two pre-Civil War US presidents slept here.

Most casinos, including the two other gambling resorts slated for Massachusetts, are built on open land, set back from their neighbors. But MGM is bringing a $950 million casino and hotel to the heart of a city with nearly four centuries of history, including the overnight stays of President James Polk and his secretary of state, James Buchanan, who became president in 1857.

Prodded by local history buffs, MGM has pledged to integrate its 14-acre development into the downtown cityscape by preserving all or a portion of several treasured buildings, including the Union House, a four-story hotel stylish enough in its day — 1847 — to attract a sitting president.


The goal of blending an outsized casino into a traditional downtown seems a tough needle to thread, but industry specialists say it could signal a broader trend — casinos that seek to blend into an urban environment, not stand apart.

Last month the 129-year-old First Spiritualist Church in Springfield was moved so it can be preserved as part of the casino complex.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

“It’s a glimpse of what future casinos may look like,” said Andrew Klebenow of Global Market Advisers, a Las Vegas-based casino consulting company. “Rather than build an island in the middle of the city, MGM wants to connect to the street grid and allow for the free flow of pedestrians and tourists into and out of its property.”

By contrast, Wynn Resorts is building its $2 billion casino in Everett on a wide, grassy field near the Mystic River, and the tribal casino in Taunton will replace a mostly empty office park along a highway.

In Springfield, though, the casino will be bracketed by two of the city’s landmarks, the sturdy Mass Mutual building, built in the early 20th century, and the columned facade of the United Electric building. MGM plans to restore the magnificent United Electric lobby, a masterpiece that features terrazzo floors, marbled walls, and a stained-glass dome, to be displayed at the casino.


And while gambling and religion may seem like poor partners, crews this spring moved the 129-year-old First Spiritualist Church about 200 yards so it can be preserved as part of the complex, which will also include a bowling alley, skating rink, and movie theater.

The preservation efforts are in keeping with the casino’s location in Springfield’s historic downtown, once a bustling hub of commerce and industry, with crammed street cars running down Main Street and crowded sidewalks.

The casino will be only a couple blocks from Court Square, a wide patch of green surrounded by a white steepled church, a building designed by famed 19th-century architect H.H. Richardson, and the classically styled City Hall and Symphony Hall. Nearby is the Mass Mutual Civic Center, an 8,000-seat arena, providing entertainment options in close proximity.

“The idea is for casino patrons to venture out into the city to go to the symphony or to the Civic Center for a show,” said Robert McCarroll, a retired city planner and longtime preservationist.

The former location of the church will become the middle of the casino's gambling floor.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

For decades, Springfield has experienced a steady drain of jobs as factories moved or closed and the automobile spread people into the suburbs. Its current unemployment rate of almost 9 percent is about twice that of the state average.

A decade ago, with the city teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, the state came to the rescue, providing millions in stopgap funding and appointing a five-member financial control board to help run the city, today the state’s third-largest with about 150,000 residents.


The city has since stabilized its finances and regained local control, and many officials now look to the casino as a long-awaited economic catalyst capable of bringing new life to a subdued downtown.

“Most casinos are built like fortresses and try to keep people inside,” said Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief development officer. “This is an urban casino that actually fits into the urban landscape.”

MGM says the casino will create about 5,000 construction and permanent jobs, and pay $25 million to the city each year as compensation to offset added traffic and other potential problems.

Michael Mathis, president of MGM Springfield, said the company’s plan drew inspiration from the city’s “past and its future potential.”

“We are very proud of our urban redevelopment casino model,” he said.

But others are skeptical about the casino’s prospects in an increasingly competitive market.

“It’s a nice idea, but we’re moving toward casino saturation and a lot of them will go belly up in a few years,” said Robert Goodman, a gambling researcher and author.

The process of persuading MGM to preserve historic landmarks was not always easy, according to McCarroll and Ralph Slate, members of the city’s historical commission, who sometimes clashed with the casino company.

When the city’s mayor, Domenic J. Sarno, won reelection last year, McCarroll and Slate were told their services were no longer needed.


“It was retribution,” McCarroll said.

But Kennedy said the mayor simply wanted to give others the chance to serve on the panel after months of hard bargaining.

“It was contentious but the results were very good,” he said of the process.

A rendering of the under-construction casino.MGM Resorts International/File

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.