Springfield's Losing Bet

Downtown Atlantic City. See any prosperity?
 Springfield, Massachusetts–a city as high on anyone's vacation agenda as, say, Detroit. Like Detroit it's a postindustrial hellhole–a dumping ground for recent immigrants and poor folks because of its vacant housing stock. It's been in decline since the machine tool industry collapsed in the 1960s. Ask Western Massachusetts locals to describe it and you'll get gang warfare, drugs, racial tension, substandard schools, and slums. It has its charms–the Basketball Hall of Fame, a decent art museum, a few colleges–but few rational people spend more time there than they must. If Springfield were a dog, it would have been put down.

It's hardly a surprise that Springfield lobbied long and hard to secure one of the three casino licenses approved by Massachusetts legislators. City officials such as Mayor Domenic Sarno speak boldly of casinos as economic engines to revitalize the city, though it's just public posturing. In truth, Springfield is grasping at straws. Casinos are the latest desperate grab, after an inner city mall and a new Basketball Hall of Fame failed to make a dent, and no minor league baseball team wanted to relocate there. I'm not sure anything can revitalize Springfield, but the only bet I'll ever make there is that casinos are not the answer. The city will try–assuming Bay State voters don't repeal the casino enabling law in November–but casinos are the worst idea yet for trying to deter Springfield from its an inexorable slide to become Botany Bay without the view.

First, casinos are going to cost a bundle: improved access to the site, water main upgrades, tax abatements, costly demolition projects, utilities of all sorts…. The city has no money; hence it will have to bleed schools and social services to get it. Expect the city's grim social statistics to get even worse in the short run. It will be sold as short-term leveraging to secure a glittery future. Sure–said the man down to his last thou as he doubled down for a last spin on the roulette wheel.

Casinos are destined to flop in Springfield for reasons that go beyond investment or the morality of gambling. They will flop because Springfield is Springfield. If you're a high-stakes gambler, do you have to go there to drop your cash? Why would you? Why wouldn't you jet off to Vegas, which at least has warm weather and other attractions? Or down to Florida where you can also catch some races and loll on the beach? If you want to stay close to home, why not venture down the Mass Pike to Boston, which will also have a casino? Springfield has all the lack of charm of Atlantic City, sans the ocean.

Speaking of Atlantic City, is nobody paying attention to what's happening there? Jersey casinos are folding faster than a man holding a pairless poker hand. Observers taking off their rose-colored glasses might notice that nearly four decades of legalized Atlantic City gambling made no dent in alleviating the city's squalor. Most gamblers don't even leave the hotel lobby for the Boardwalk, let alone frequent downtown merchants. Several casinos have express bus routes that literally go under parts of the city, lest gamblers be forced to gaze upon the city's urban wreckage. If Atlantic City, with its access to Philadelphia and New York City can't turn the corner through casinos, explain how Springfield can.

It's certainly not that gambling would be unique. The casino bus left the station a long time ago. Thirty-five states now have casinos, a list that includes neighboring Connecticut and New York. I'm at a loss (wordplay intended) to understand why someone from Hartford (27 miles to the south) would come to Springfield instead of driving another 10 miles to Foxwoods, an established casino in a considerably more pleasant location. Or why an Albany poker player wouldn't head for the sylvan delights of Saratoga. Who's going to fuel the gambling jet in Springfield? Locals? In a city whose median income is six grand below the state average?

I could go on, but my money's on the following: a casino opens, costs Springfield a bundle, exacerbates already bad social statistics, struggles, and in 5-6 years folds it tent. Springfield has it backward. You need to make people want to come by cleaning up Dodge City, not adding to gun play. Want to know what casinos will mean to the city? Take a trip to Detroit. Not comparable you say? Try Bangor, Maine. It has a casino and if it gets more grim than Bangor, I don't want to know about it.

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