When I went away to college in the early eighties I explained where I was from by listing a series of brands and products; Milton Bradley toys, Smith and Wesson guns, Spalding sporting goods, Diamond matches, Uniroyal tires, Absorbine jr…you get the idea. Even the notebooks at the bookstore were made by National Blank Book in Holyoke. The area I was from was a hub of manufacturing, and I viewed it as a good thing. As I took my initial courses in my chosen field of study, Economics, it seemed to me that the greater Springfield area was well diversified, with major financial and educational institutions balancing the region’s dependence on manufacturing.
Financialization wasn’t a word I heard (my word processor’s dictionary doesn’t recognize it now!) in my Econ classes, but the use of financial institutions and processes to maximize profits in an advanced economy, with manufacturing being used to to benefit the former instead of the other way around, has taken Springfield’s strengths, and turned them into weaknesses. The overall diminution of manufacturing in the United States in combination with the push to suburbanize were the double whammy which knocked Springfield off its feet. The strength of the region was reduced and what vitality remained was pushed out to the periphery.
While both financialization and suburbanization were far from free market occurrences, it would be disingenuous to comment on that without first recognizing that Springfield came into existence as a manufacturing hub because the federal government located a center for arms manufacturing here and the region’s industrial base grew from there. In the interest of sanity then, it should be acknowledged that much of the decline, as with most of the growth, was not due to any great genius or idiocy on the part of local leaders.
Seeing that, quite literally, all northeastern cities of the size of Springfield have suffered earlier or later from the same overall decline in population, in vitality, and in the perception their neighboring communities have of them is instructive and useful. Chastising past leaders in Worcester, Providence, Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, and Albany among others for not making this or that enlightened decision at some particular moment in the past is equivalent to all of us being angry at grandpa for not investing in Apple and Microsoft when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were in the mom and dad’s garage stage of growing their businesses.
That stated, the bullies continue to bully and the haters persist in hating when it comes to these cities. Most bullies don’t think they’re bullies, remember: They don’t view themselves as Nelson from The Simpsons, they view themselves as Jeremiah from the Old Testament, justifiably chastising bad behavior and/or decision making either as a call to repentance or as justifiable punishment. Non residents may not understand just how unremitting the criticism is. Just riding the bus from Boston to Springfield for Thanksgiving my daughter had to put on her headphones in order to avoid being an ear-witness to a young woman lamenting on the phone to a friend that her father was making her wait to transfer in the “$&@%€ ghetto” that is Springfield instead of picking her up at the bus station or, I suppose, paying for a limo to take her straight home.
All of that is what makes the last few months so remarkable. I realize and recognize my own motivated reasoning in this. My personal and financial investment in the city could make me like a religious fundy who everywhere sees signs of the apocalypse, but there has been a string of positive outcomes, a winning streak this city hasn’t seen for some time, and I plan to elaborate on them.
Starting with the smallest of the small, the seemingly least consequential of the positive reversals; two restaurants, one a national chain, the other a local (and spectacular!) establishment decided to close an outlet in the region but, while both had locations in the suburbs and the city, both decided to consolidate retain an urban locale and close a suburban shop.
Moving up the chart ever so slightly, victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat as the city’s most famous dining establishment first announced it would close, with only some vague reference to a possible transfer of the business, to only at the last minute be purchased by one of the city’s best known businessmen and be transformed into an updated and remodeled (and one can only hope culinarily much improved) version of itself. The initial announcement of closure had been greeted by shouting and jeering about the city’s further decline. The commitment of nearly a million dollars into the heart of downtown has been unremarked upon by Springfield-haters.
The CNR Railways decision to locate its North American headquarters in Springfield while at the same time building a $60 million manufacturing facility here could be an isolated, anomalous event, or it could be the harbinger of renewed vitality in the manufacturing sector. Whatever the long term significance, for right now it shows that experts in both the public and private sectors see advantages to linking their success to the City of Springfield.
The topic of MGM requires its own sub category because of the depth and breadth of the humiliation that the naddering nabobs of negativity have suffered. I will admit that I paid little attention to the casino law as it progressed through the legislative process, and even after it passed I had no inkling that it would have such an enormous potential impact on not only my municipality, but my neighborhood.
At first Springfield was dismissed by self appointed experts (See casinowhispers.com oh, wait, you can’t, it no longer exists!) because only a casino-in-the-woods model could compete with the preexisting billions of dollars invested in casino-in-the-woods in Connecticut. Wrong. Except for the owners of the aforementioned Connecticut casinos-in-the-woods themselves, no one was interested in competing with the local giants in their area of speciality. It turned out that all of the major players in “Region 3” were looking at urban locations from Chicopee, Holyoke, and West Springfield to little old Springfield.
Once Springfield was the focus of potentially four, then three (Thank you to Ameristar for cleaning up the Westinghouse site btw!), then two major players the nay-Sayers had another chance to get things totally wrong. The Penn National concept for the north blocks was obviously inferior to the ambitious MGM plan, with little retail, no residential component, and no thought given to non-gaming entertainment beyond some kind of ephemeral connection to the old Paramount Theater, but Penn National knew all the right people: “Richie Neal, Mass Mutual, The editorial board of the Republican newspaper, Peter Picknelly”…and the fix was in.
But now it was clear that the Mohegan Sun plan for Palmer would blow away Springfield and MGM once the decision got to Gaming Commission, right? That is if that decision ever needed to be made, because MGM would be declared ineligible because an investor in a casino in Macao had a family member who was connected to organized crime (Pansy Ho!). Then somebody who knew somebody who was on the Gaming Commission went to a Christmas party where someone from MGM had crudités and so needed to be recused…or something. But then a magical thing happened; the people of Palmer decided that they didn’t want to double the effective size of their community by putting a billion dollar pod city on a greenfield between their downtown and the highway. MGM and Springfield were left as the only options and the commission ranked their proposal as excellent.
Then came the repeal the deal sixth* bite at the apple. Now that people could see exactly what MGM had planned….AND WHERE…the people would put an end to this ridiculousness! But instead support for having casinos in a state where its citizens spend a billion dollars a year at out of state casinos already held steady at 60%, as it had since the issue began to be discussed decades ago. Then MGM wouldn’t accept the license we were told, now that they had other east coast opportunities in New Jersey and Maryland. They didn’t have the money. They wouldn’t pay the licensing fee. Wrong,wrong, and wrong.
To make matters worse for Springfield haters, the MGM plan seems to be having the knock on effects its proponents had hoped for. Three new hotels are in various stages of planning and construction apart from the MGM Grand to be built within the development itself. A portion of the MGM revenue which had been earmarked to support development of Union Station is being leveraged now to turn what was initially a two phase plan into a single phase project. (Let’s hope it includes plans to have retail at the ground floor of the “necessary evil” parking garage!)
It’s apparent that most of the businesses dislocated by the casino will be staying “in the neighborhood”, much to the dismay of those who want to paint a slightly different picture, namely the Valley Advocate, which all of a sudden sees the tornado ravaged strip of Main Street in the South End as a healthy part of the neighborhood that big bad MGM is going to destroy! I love how their article includes a reference to a “no comment” by employees at Tony’s Famous Barber Shop arranged so as to imply that they are less than thrilled with the arrival of MGM. Except I know the family that owns that business. They are thrilled with the arrival of MGM and they are relocating to another building in the South End. As is Glory Shoes.
As far as social services providers being dislocated; I’m thrilled. We need to have those services in the city, but having them located front and center on the first floor on Main Street is not a sign of a healthy community. I wish them well in their new locations. I also can’t wait for storefront churches, insurance businesses, financial services providers, and commercial offices to be moved OFF the ground floor and up to the second story where they belong as traditional “second story uses”. You see, demand for retail should be such that it drives these places to other locations. Both second story and backstreet uses can add vitality to otherwise empty streets and buildings and create the foot traffic necessary to give entry level retailers a chance to start inexpensively.
This report from the Mayor’s office paints a pretty picture. Nearly three billion dollars in bricks and mortar investment is pretty good for a city of Springfield’s size, and I dare say that most of the investment is of the right sort and in the right places from a “Strong Towns” perspective. Murders are down. Overall crime is down. Teen pregnancy rates are down. Unemployment is down
All in all it has been a tough year for those who feed on schadenfreude.
I’m excited about the future.
*House, Senate, Governor’s signature, approval by local executive, local referendum, approval by governor appointed Gaming Commission, statewide referendum.