Spending the evening at the Springfield Armory caused me to contemplate just how transformative certain decisions can be for a place. Henry Knox noted a particular hill a distance from the Connecticut River as his troops dragged artillery from Fort Ticonderoga to end the siege of Boston during the Revolutionary War. George Washington later agreed that locating an arsenal on that spot would make strategic sense, and the region became the center for innovation in American manufacturing for the next century.
The transformation from sleepy little agricultural hamlet to economic dynamo was destined to occur once Washington’s decision was made. The ridges which had impeded agricultural growth made numerous rivers and streams ripe for use as sources of industrial energy which were utilized to make not just weaponry, but everything from America’s first gasoline powered automobile to the first postcards. Frozen foods, motorcycles, board games, vulcanized rubber, basketball, and dozens more innovations got their start here because Henry Knox remembered one particular promontory.
And no one here could have imagined how different life would become because of it.
MGM has that same feel about it. Not in the sense of growth mind you, just in the sense of change. Everything about the entire project is scaled to fit within its context. The hotel, the cinema complex, the skating rink, the retail space, the restaurants, and the bowling alleys are each right-sized for the city and the region. MGM won’t even be anything like the city’s largest employer with MassMutual, Baystate Health, even the local public schools employing many more people.
After the opening weekend I’m sure the traffic will become manageable, and the disaster caused by offering free parking to all comers in a commercial hub whose participants actually dwarf the casino in scale will quickly become apparent and will, I’m sure, be quickly remedied. But downtown Springfield hasn’t seen 24/7 activity at any scale for decades if ever. It’s not just that the sidewalks were generally rolled up after 5 pm, but Saturday mornings and Sundays were nightmares of urban quietude. I can’t tell you how many times my wife and I got a sudden urge to dine at a place that was closed…because our weekend domestic restlessness would always set in at the same time. We’d always end up at the Riverfront, which all in all is basically a very well elaborated highway rest stop.
This may come off as a sort of premature humble-brag about how awesome the city will be, but it really isn’t. I do think the “magic feather” properties of MGM could awaken people to the amazing resources that have always been here, and it does seem as though city leaders on the governmental side, if not in the private sector, have done everything possible to make MGM a catalyst for positive change all around, but I don’t believe that such positive outcomes are predestined in the least. I can’t see “Springfield as Atlantic City” either, but there is the chance that this transformation could involve both success and failure in ways that can’t be foreseen.
Main Street has never looked better. There are already hundreds of people out walking, shopping, and doing business every weekday. As I write this sentence, on a Sunday morning no less, a train whistle echoes in the distance. Bike lanes and bike boxes have appeared, and cyclists with them, including yours truly. 6 parks and plazas have been, are being, or will be upgraded by the time next spring rolls around.
All to what end? Sincerity is one of the hardest things to fake. I can’t imagine this investment being worthwhile for MGM unless the project does make the entire downtown THE regional center for entertainment, dining, and even retail. MGM likes to mention that a greater percentage of its revenue comes from entertainment than gaming. I think it’s safe to say that the profit margin is higher on slots than concerts and steaks however. They weren’t allowed to open a slots parlor as Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods are doing just down the road. Would they if they could? Perhaps some ideas are better left unexplored.
If you’re not from Springfield but you live in a place like Springfield you should pay attention to this as it plays out. The effort to transform the negative image of this place continues to be Herculean. The budget has been huge, but even details like sidewalks, trash cans, and benches haven’t been overlooked. There are smaller scale and even, dare I say, incremental changes taking place alongside and even within the larger program. If this doesn’t transform the mindset of visitors and residents as far as the overall attitude toward the city is concerned then I’m not sure what will.