As a city Springfield hits the high and the low, but not the middle. We’ve got it here and there, but there are gaps in between. The region in general and the downtown in particular have almost everything they need to become a first choice destination for visitors. The missed connections, the weak linkages, and the absent mid-level attractions are what hold us back.
Starting with the “high”, there are pro sports teams and a symphony orchestra in the downtown. I would consider both of those at the upper end of entertainment opportunities, not that hockey is highbrow, but AHL hockey is a product that only cities of a certain size can attract and retain much like a professional symphony orchestra and classical music series. In spite of the fact that there are numerous venues of varying size in the downtown, there is not enough serious (non musical) theater, and competition from other places keeps the marquis concert scene at the MassMutual Center fairly quiet.
At the other end of the spectrum, again, not really in terms of a qualitative judgement but rather as a judgement of the critical mass necessary to bring them into being, there are bars and restaurants. Others may claim that the downtown doesn’t have enough restaurants and eateries: Nadim’s, Panjabi Tadka, Chef Wayne’s Big Mamou, 350 Grille, The Student Prince, Panda House, Red Rose, McCaffery’s, Black Pearl, Frigo’s, Milano’s, Mom and Rico’s, Uno’s, Samuel’s, Max’s Tavern, Plan B, Mama Iguana’s, Mexitalia, JT’s Sports Bar, Champions, Peter’s Grill, Hot Table, Theodore’s…I know there are more…and those were off the top of my head, I respectfully disagree.
What’s missing is retail and film, the meat in the entertainment sandwich. Retail as pastime is an expectation, movies are the PB and J of dating and nights out. To not have them as part of the walkable core of the city sucks the life out of the downtown, just as having them would create critical mass as people venture from place to place on foot and street life becomes common, ubiquitous, and vibrant.
The other obstacle to more vibrancy is linkage. The Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Museums, the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, and, most importantly, Six Flags, are excellent high quality regional attractions, but they are only weakly linked overall, and almost completely disconnected for those not moving around by car. Giving both day-trippers and overnight hotel guests options for moving from place to place without using their private vehicles would create the same energy in the tourism strata as film and shopping in the entertainment world.
It is clear, and not at all surprising, that a world class entertainment company like MGM would see all of this. Whoever prepared their plan saw these weaknesses and intends to eliminate the gaps. The core of the MGM plan apart from gaming? 12 movie theaters, 165,000 square feet of retail space, and a trolley to move people around the downtown from destination to destination. It is clear that their plan is not simply to create a convenience casino, but rather to attract people to a destination which can provide multiple experiences for singles, couples, and families.
Families? There’s the gap they’ve yet to fill, although I think they still will given their track record. Six Flags is the key to making MGM and Springfield a premier summertime family destination. The city has excellent hotels and high quality family attractions already in the HOF, Quadrangle Museums, and even the Armory but are they enough to make the average family stay for more than a night at a local hotel, and would there be any reason for that hotel to be in the downtown? Speaking as a man who has raised a family and vacationed with children, I don’t think so. Making the city more than just a stop along the way requires linking to Six Flags in such a way that the downtown becomes the best place from which to access it all.
Doing this takes only two steps. The first is connecting the Riverfront to Six Flags via the Connecticut River, and the second is giving Six Flags an iconic presence at the riverfront itself. Imagine staying at a first rate hotel in the downtown, be it MGM’s own hotel, the Marriott, the Sheraton, or the Hilton, and walking or being taken by trolley to Riverfront Park where a Ferris wheel, carousel, and perhaps one or two other rides help you pass the time as you wait for a riverboat (It has been done before!) to take you to Six Flags New England. It’s an amusement park that can easily occupy a family for two or even three days and nights; the movies and retail at MGM, the museums and restaurants of the downtown, and shows at the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, CityStage, and the Paramount round out the experience. In the off season, Falcons hockey, and the NBADL Armor supplement the absence of Six Flags for weekend getaways and winter breaks.
As already stated, MGM clearly understands that competing in a saturated gaming market in the northeast is going to take not only providing a unique high quality product themselves, but linking to just such attractions as already exist as seamlessly as possible. Only one city in New England is a 5 minute boat ride away from New England’s largest amusement park. For Six Flags New England only the Riverfront can give it a presence visible daily to the 100,000 cars per day that pass by on Interstate 91 in the downtown. To the city, linking them both will make Springfield a destination like no other.
Visiting Springfield would be a fulfilling, well rounded adventure for visitors which could easily make it part a one-time northeast tour for people from other regions of the United States, (the Hall of Fame being key to the unique nature of the experience) or part of a regular yearly vacation for families from the northeast. A family could drive in, park their car once, and for three, four, even five days do something every day and have a well rounded experience ranging from the educational, to the experiential.