It’s been a year since MGM Springfield first opened its doors and, given that, it is entirely appropriate to assess the impact it has had on the neighborhood. This isn’t about a global critique of casinos, the political decisions that legalized the gaming industry in Massachusetts, or the process which brought a $960 million resort to downtown Springfield; I’ve covered those topics before. It is about what I’ve seen compared to what I expected and what was promised.
As the concept transitioned from proposal to projects a number of enormous differences became apparent. The one most often cited is the transformation of the MGM Grand hotel from a modern glass tower to a more modest looking series of 5 story façades along Main Street. This faux eclectic strip was originally to be the site of MGM’s market rate housing, instead it is now hoped that MGM will fulfill that commitment by investing in the rehabilitation of the Court Square building. Much less remembered is that the very first plan included an enormous retail footprint which continues to shrink, that the old armory building was to be the centerpiece of the development, that there was to be no ticketed entertainment within the MGM footprint, and that the boxes of cops’es were to be occupied 24/7/365.
Given the enormity of the resort, and MGM’s commitments my hope is to create loose categories and assess them. I have no doubt that some of my judgements will prove to be mistaken over time. It may be that my misjudgments become the most valuable of judgments over time as perhaps I and others may learn to better understand what we see after learning from my misperceptions. These assessments come from an interest in downtown revitalization that goes back to collecting magazines about the topic in junior high school…which may explain why I was still a virgin on my wedding night 10 years later. Nearly all of the years since I have lived no more than a 5 minute walk from what is now MGM Springfield, and so by dint of interest and experience I believe that what I have to share may be of some value.
Beginning in no particular order, topic #1:
The original plan made available as a model for viewing at the MGM offices on Main Street included an enormous enclosed mall and also promised up to 40 shops and restaurants in tens of thousands of square feet of retail space, then shrank to perhaps 1/4 of that, and now is made up of a hotel gift shop, a clothing store, a candle shop, and a jeweler; both the number of retail establishments and the square footage dedicated to retail have greatly diminished.
This blueprint is post “mall concept” but still shows 19 separate retail outlets not including food and beverage:
The final project has 8 if you also include a tv station mini-studio, a spa, and the wine store in the Italian restaurant AND…
… the Starbucks (food and beverage but, potentially at least, a retail outlet) on Main Street, which has already disappeared to be replaced by another VIP bar:
Another never opened retail space on the south plaza has become an outdoor bar:
This storefront has remained empty since day one:
What were first envisioned as multiple free standing shops may now become a single Wahlburgers:
I can’t imagine that the Indian Motorcycle store will last another year, and closing of the Kringle Candle store would leave a huge crater in a very visible location; either they will be encouraged to stay by very generous terms moving forward, or MGM will have a plan in place to try to make the departure look insignificant.
My take is that, while the lack of retail energy on the property, and the ubiquitous empty storefronts all around the project are not a good thing, the removal of the mall from the plan, and the changes in quantity and location of the in-footprint retail are net pluses for downtown. Even before the onset of the retail apocalypse Main Street had an abundance of high quality storefronts, and at least three downtown retail malls (Tower Square, The Marketplace, and the old SIS mall) but still suffered from a lack of anything anyone would call an attractive retail environment.
The shops which were here long before MGM arrived and have continued to succeed are the ones which cater to the people who live in Springfield.
The Shean Block and the much maligned Crown Fried Chicken:
Like them or hate them, and many of the suits do not like them at all, they clearly create a core that the city needs to build on. As I mentioned in my essay on invisible retail, there is an ecosystem of healthy local entrepreneurial retail establishments which mostly caters to a very different demographic from the one to which I belong; bodegas, phone stores, nail salons, barber shops, take out places, laundromats, clothing stores, pawn shops, beauty supply stores, and so on. There is enough space these to coexist with shops designed to attract visitors and tourists.
There have been changes, and some expansion, of retail perhaps due to MGM. CVS is moving out of the Main Street frontage of Tower Square and into a building on Main Street just the other side of MGM, Lorilil Jewelers has kept its store in Tower Square and added an outlet directly across from MGM. A store which was proposed as an outlet for recreational marijuana is now a CBD shop, and a fine menswear store has opened (and moved once already).
It has been said that the landlords who control the best storefronts across from MGM do not inspire confidence as partners, and are asking for fairly high rents given the risky nature of downtown retail. I have no knowledge one way or another. Whatever the reason, there they sit:
I have already expressed my disappointment that the retail development we were promised as the capstone of Davenport Square turned out to be a CVS, although I must admit that it brings “our pharmacy” to within a block of the house and I am sure as a family we will end up making more purchases at that establishment than we would have at the notional shops which were floated as a possibility:
Red Rose has shown that food outlets in particular can easily attract casino patrons. I was surprised to learn that the lower end food offerings at MGM were both, relative to the South End, high in price and low in quality. So far all of the locally owned restaurants near the casino are still open, not just Red Rose, but City Pizza, Milano’s, Raices, Mom and Rico’s, La Fiorentina, Frigo’s, Ciro’s, Crown Fried Chicken, Sun Kim Bop, and Sol Karibe. MGM is claiming that a contract is in place and that a Wahlburgers franchise will break ground within a month at the corner of Main and Union streets. The “coming soon” bunting has been up for almost a year at this point, so I will believe it when I see it.
As a resident all of this represents at the very least a small step forward. Let me explain why. A friend expressed surprise the other day when I revealed that I had just eaten for the very first time at the downtown’s hottest new lunch place. I thought about it for a while and realized that as a resident and not a downtown worker it was almost never open when I was looking for a place to eat. When my wife first moved here we found that on weekends the only lunch options available were the lower budget places like Crown Fried Chicken. Sometimes we’d have to wander down to some franchise place at the Hall of Fame if we were looking for a sit down place; the downtown doesn’t have enough middle/high income residents to justify staying open to sell $12 meals or even $8 sandwiches. It is also still standard practice for some downtown restaurants to alter their hours of operation without notice especially and weekend afternoons.
As far as non food retail is concerned I have to express ambivalence. I was dismayed to find out that a Main Street Northampton retailer which at first closed, and then announced a move to a nearby mall was owned by the same people who own the jeweler inside MGM. In the media at least those owners expressed that they were not sure whether or not to reopen and, if they did reopen, where to reopen. Was that not a perfect opportunity for MGM to work with people they already had a relationship with to bring them either to one of their empty retail spaces, or to arrange a lease with a nearby landlord? As a resident I’d like to be able to buy groceries, clothes, books, and hardware in my neighborhood, but I know that is very unrealistic; I’m lucky to have two local hardware stores a 5 minute DRIVE from my home and only a bookstore and a clothing store might dovetail with the desires of the occasional gambler.
My verdict would be that the retail situation we see in and around the casino isn’t particularly different from what existed in the downtown before MGM’s grand opening but the real lack of energy and entrepreneurial endeavor is mostly on the part of local businessman who have, at best, decided to take a wait and see approach or who, as appears most likely, are hoping not to take any risks but would rather sell or rent to a person who does.
Still to come: Security, Entertainment, Infrastructure, Transportation, and Perception.