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MGM’s casino hopes to up the ante in Springfield

The $960 million MGM Springfield employs about 2,865 and has had more than 2 million visitors since opening in August.
The $960 million MGM Springfield employs about 2,865 and has had more than 2 million visitors since opening in August.(Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe)

SPRINGFIELD — The cocktail is called #Fakenews. Made with Russian vodka. Another witty touch at a casino packed with offbeat little details. How could I pass that up? I order the $20 drink and get to work — yes, work — taking the measure of Massachusetts’ first full-fledged casino.

I had toured MGM Springfield last summer when it was nearly built, but this is my first visit since it opened in August to great anticipation — a $960 million resort carrying the high hopes of a city looking for an economic pick-me-up.

It was hard to know what to expect. All I knew was the early gambling numbers are coming in a little soft.

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First observation: The place is busy all evening, a Friday night in January. I can still find a table in a restaurant and the on-site bowling alley has available lanes (my risible score is strictly off the record), but there are lots of customers — gambling, eating, people-watching, tossing back drinks — and the energy is high.

Second observation: There may not be a more racially diverse large entertainment venue in Massachusetts. Walking around, I think about the 2017 Globe Spotlight series on race, which found that crowds at other big venues, such as Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium, were overwhelmingly white. Not here. The clientele is diverse, at least on this night, and the staff even more so. MGM reports that 57.2 percent of MGM Springfield’s employees are minorities and 46 percent are women. The casino employs about 2,865 people.

Third observation: The place smells . . . good. It lacks that stale ashtray aroma that often permeates gambling halls. Thankfully, casinos in Massachusetts are smoke free. I didn’t feel the need to get a chest X-ray after spending some time here.

The general vibe is, well, a lot like Vegas. Slot machines broadcast a cacophony of bells and chirps, looking for attention. A large group of guys breaks into a cheer at a craps table — something good happened there. Couples and small groups sit together at neighboring slots, chatting and pounding buttons. There are also a few people playing the machines alone, with the rapt focus of air traffic controllers. The hotel lobby bar is dark and mellow. An acoustic guitarist plays to a small crowd.

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The layout of the casino is unique. The gambling floor is in the middle, surrounded by a ring of restaurants, food court, and other amenities. There’s an upscale steakhouse and a more casual Italian place (where my waiter is a young East Longmeadow guy very happy to have his job). The Tap sports bar is full of people tipping brews and watching huge wall-screen TVs. There are locally made beers on tap, including IPAs from Amherst Brewing and Thomas Hooker, a brewer just over the state line in Bloomfield, Conn.

Offbeat observation: The drink I really want is the Indian Sidecar, which has drawn a lot of attention even though nobody has ordered one since the casino opened. Probably because it costs $25,000. (My Globe laptop would electrocute me if I tried to put that on an expense report.) The drink is mixed with 118-year-old cognac and comes with a new Indian motorcycle, a brand originally produced in Springfield. The gleaming bike is on display in the Commonwealth Bar and Lounge on the gambling floor, where the cocktail is on the menu. They ship the motorcycle to your house, apparently; you don’t get to fire it up and roar out of the casino, which would be much cooler.

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Late night observation: The casino floor is still lively with gamblers past 2 a.m.; the drop-off from earlier in the evening seems minimal. (Did I get paid to stay up all night partying? Nope. Went to bed early and set an alarm. Sad!)

The hotel is done up in industrial chic, with lots of wood and exposed concrete. My $179 room had brass lamps with old-fashioned Edison bulbs, dark colors, and framed dictionary pages printed over with whimsical scenes, such as a pink elephant riding a bicycle. There’s a real book fixed to the wall like a piece of art, open to pages 108-109. Some Googling reveals the book to be “The Treasure Chest,” volume 4 of the My Book House collection by Olive Beaupré Miller, published in 1920. Strange, right? Interesting and original. Not typical casino decor.

There are lots of quirky touches throughout the property. Long hotel hallways are broken up by lamp-and-pipe sculptures that look out of a Dr. Seuss book, a nod to the work of children’s author Theodor Seuss Geisel, a Springfield native. MGM chief executive Jim Murren found the 19th-century chandelier in the elevator vestibule in a New York antiques store.

It’s an unusual property for MGM, a gambling giant with an international portfolio of resorts. The casino is located in the heart of downtown, with multiple on-street entrances. The design is meant to increase foot traffic and bring new energy to a becalmed city core.

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In mid-evening, I walk the sidewalk; not a creature is stirring along a row of dark storefronts across Main Street from the casino. I asked MGM Springfield president Michael Mathis about this on the phone later.

“That’s a fair comment and that’s something we continue to work on collaboratively with the city,” he said.

MGM is finalizing negotiations to bring in a Wahlburgers restaurant, he said, and “there are major tenants in different stages of development” pursuing plans for vacancies on Main Street. He was not at liberty to disclose them.

“Once you see some of that activity, I think it snowballs,” Mathis said. “We are very impatient about seeing ancillary development around the property, but it is underway.”

Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief development officer, said foot traffic overall is up and already changing downtown for the better, but that a full transformation “will all take time.”

But is time on Springfield’s side? (I did not personally stimulate the local economy by playing the slots or the tables on my visit. Gambling losses might be even harder to expense than a motorcycle.)

Gambling revenue for September, the first full month of operation, was $27 million. The next three months went like this: $22.2 million, $21.2 million, and $21.6 million. That’s a pace for roughly $260 million a year. MGM — and independent experts hired by state regulators — have projected the casino would generate more than $400 million annually once it becomes fully established. Massachusetts, remember, has great interest in the success of the project; the state gobbles 25 percent of gambling revenue in taxes.

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Clyde Barrow, a University of Texas professor who closely follows the New England casino industry, said it is not too soon to wonder about the resort’s gambling revenue. “The numbers they’re doing don’t justify a $950 million investment,” Barrow said.

It’s not just Springfield. New casinos in New York, such as the Resorts World Catskills, are also running soft, Barrow said, suggesting the gambling market in this part of the country may be saturated. Competition is only going to get more intense — the granddaddy of the new Northeast gambling properties, the $2.6 billion Encore Boston Harbor, by Wynn Resorts, is scheduled to open in June. I’ve toured that construction site several times. You could park 747s on the gambling floor at Encore; it will be one of the biggest rooms of any kind in Greater Boston.

Mathis, for his part, predicts brighter times for MGM Springfield; for one thing, he and his staff are still learning about the preferences of local patrons. Gambling revenue will improve, he said, with the passing of the traditionally slow winter season and after MGM ramps up promotions and builds out its customer database.

“Right now, we’re still in experimentation, trying to figure out what the customer wants,” he said. Based on feedback, MGM doubled the number of video poker machines, changed slot machines in its high-limit lounge, and is adjusting minimum bets at table games to closer match the risk tolerance of customers.

“We saw tremendous business that justified some higher table minimums, but during the day there was enough softness that we saw we could lower it and talk to a different customer who was looking for a $10 game,” Mathis said.

“I think we’ll start to feel the benefits of that, of all our promotion, in the spring,” he said. “That’s when we’ve got some of our bigger entertainment starting to roll out.”

MGM has already confirmed a concert by Cher on April 30 at the MassMutual Center next door, and other “big announcements” are coming soon, he said.

One big number working in MGM’s favor is the more than 2 million visitors it has hosted in about five months. It was once an open question whether people would drive to downtown Springfield for a casino resort.

MGM built it, and they have come.


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