New casinos bring challenges to Central Mass. tourism

BY Grant Welker

Photo | Courtesy
Photo | Courtesy
MGM Springfield has been readying for an Aug. 24 opening, when it will become the state's first full-service casino.

Central Massachusetts has always had to compete against what some in tourism call the three B's: Boston, beaches and the Berkshires.
Now, add a fourth B: betting.
On Aug. 24, an MGM casino will open in Springfield with not just betting but far more: a 250-room hotel, an eight-screen movie theater complex, and a 10-lane bowling alley. Next year, another casino will open just north of Boston, at Encore Boston Harbor in Everett.
The fight for entertainment dollars is not getting easier for Central Massachusetts venues and attractions, even if leaders aren't sure how casino competition will play out.
“It's a big unknown,” said Troy Siebels, the president and CEO of The Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts and board chairman for tourism marketing nonprofit Discover Central Massachusetts. “A lot of us don't know what the impact will be. I think we're a little bit worried.”

The state's casino gaming law, which was passed in 2011, attempted to protect other performance venues, like the Hanover.
Hanover and Symphony Hall, a venue in Springfield, both signed an agreement with MGM encouraging cooperation between the casino and the older venues to keep them from competing with one another for acts. MGM was barred from building a venue of between 1,000 and 3,500 seats or from booking acts that would preclude them from playing at the Hanover or Symphony Hall, and was committed to promoting the Hanover and Symphony Hall on social media and marketing on-site at the casino.
“That was a big deal for us,” Siebels said of the stipulation. “It does give us a little bit more comfort.”
Such an agreement is very unusual for the casino industry, said Rachel Volberg, a research associate professor at UMass Amherst's School of Public Health and Health Sciences.
Beyond that agreement, MGM has been an advertiser at Worcester's DCU Center, and is a member of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce. Casino representatives have said MGM considers the Worcester area to be a major market.
Sandy Dunn, the general manager of the DCU Center, doesn't see the Springfield casino, with its affiliation with the existing adjacent MassMutual Center, as direct competition.
The DCU Center, Dunn said, is more focused toward the Boston market, where arenas are more likely to fight over the same acts as DCU.
“That's more of how we're positioning ourselves,” Dunn said. “We're not really their competitor,” she added of MGM and the MassMutual Center. “We're looking east.”

The DCU Center, Dunn said, is more focused toward the Boston market, where arenas are more likely to fight over the same acts as DCU.
“That's more of how we're positioning ourselves,” Dunn said. “We're not really their competitor,” she added of MGM and the MassMutual Center. “We're looking east.”

Both of the state's new casinos won't look to just draw visitors for gambling, dining or seeing a show, but to book conventions and meetings.
In addition to its sprawling casino, MGM Springfield includes a meeting capacity of 200 to 300 people, along with another 8,000 in the MassMutual Center.

Encore Boston Harbor, which is slated to open next June, could pose as much of a challenge locally as MGM. Encore will include a 650-room hotel and more meeting and convention space: a 37,000-square-foot grand ballroom and 10 meeting rooms.

Dunn, however, doesn't foresee too much harm from the additional meeting-space competition, either. Many trade groups already rotate among the state's or New England's convention centers for meetings, she said.

“We have found that most of our clientele is not interested in an environment that has gaming,” Dunn said.

A few Central Massachusetts communities considered adding casinos before plans ultimately fell through, though they may feel an effect nonetheless.
Worcester city councilors voted in 2013 to negotiate a host agreement with the developer of a proposed $200-million slots parlor. But residents were vocal in opposing the project, and the deal fell apart. Later that year, Chicago developer Rush Street Gaming pulled out of a plan for a $250-million slots parlor in Millbury amid local opposition, and Milford voters turned down a $850-million proposal from Connecticut-based Foxwoods by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
Leominster residents backed a slots parlor plan by Baltimore-based Cordish Cos. by more than 60-40, but the Plainridge proposal was chosen by state officials for the state's single slots license.
As for how much Central Massachusetts tourism, dining and entertainment industries will be affected by the state's new casinos, there isn't a sure way to know, Volberg said.
“Believe it or not, given how many casinos we have in the United States and internationally, there's very little known about the impact that casinos have on communities,” said Volberg, who conducts research for a UMass center called Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts.
Even the immediate effects on Springfield itself won't be known until the research center is able to put an analysis together around a year from now. MGM will draw employees from existing businesses, negating somewhat the benefit of extra jobs, but will bring more visitors to Springfield, which has largely been left behind the state's economic growth.
“The casino is going to bring a tremendous amount of new visitors to Springfield, at least for the first few years,” Volberg said of MGM's spillover effect. “Even though the casino and restaurants in the casino may be very popular, I doubt that they're going to be able to absorb all the traffic they're going to be generating.”
Economic benefits from casinos aren't particularly visible, but exist in workers with full-time hours and benefits, which can be rare in the service industry, said Clyde Barrow, the chair of the department of political science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and a former director of the UMass Dartmouth Center for Policy Analysis who remains a close observer to the New England casino industry.
Spreading the benefits
Massachusetts is among a few states, along with Ohio, Pennsylvania and others, Barrow said, to ensure through legislation communities benefit from money brought in by gambling.
“Massachusetts was really part of a cluster of states that were trying to ensure on one hand that the benefits of the casino spread out to a broader area, and not just be contained in the casino like with Atlantic City,” Barrow said, “and simultaneously wouldn't cannibalize existing venues in the performing arts.”

It isn't clear how much tourism from Central Massachusetts goes to area casinos today, but options have already been available nearby. Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville is a roughly 45-minute drive from Worcester, as is Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I., where a 135-room hotel will open later this summer.

Central Massachusetts has long had competition from Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, too, where Massachusetts residents have been known to cross over the state line to gamble, eat or shop.

The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism sees a potential through marketing at MGM and eventually Encore to promote its own website for visitors and help capture more visitors from outside the area.

Francois-Laurent Nivaud, the executive director of the tourism office, said the office envisions both MGM and Encore becoming premier attractions benefitting the whole state.

“We look forward to welcoming new audiences from around the world to experience Massachusetts,” he said.