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Two weeks ago a story appeared in The Reminder Publications that detailed how Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse had proposed a new position, “Director of Arts, Culture and Tourism,” to help better coordinate projects aimed at transforming Holyoke into culturally thriving community. In the article, Morse said he got the idea after meeting with officials from several different communities who were attending the Creative Placemaking Summit in Lowell, MA. He said the move went along perfectly with his goal of using the arts, innovation and technology to revitalize the Paper City.
As the Reminder story explained, the new position would support the city’s previously established Arts and Innovation District, which was recently created as part of downtown Holyoke’s overall recovery plan. (The Holyoke City Council is currently still reviewing Morse’s proposed new position.)
Holyoke’s in-process revitalization plan also brings to mind efforts undertaken by the city of Pittsfield, which several years ago established the Office of Cultural Development to help facilitate that city’s own transformation into a cultural destination. The results thus far have been impressive for the small Berkshire city, as this story in the Valley Advocate can attest. Pittsfield’s “Third Thursdays” downtown events, held every third Thursday of the month from May through October, are hugely popular with both city residents and visitors from surrounding communities, attracting between 5,000 to 10,000 each month according to the city’s website. The city’s renovated Colonial Theatre and Lichtenstein Center for the Arts are just two of the many venues that have fueled the blossoming of the arts there, where by official account more than 50 new businesses and restaurants have opened their doors since the rebirth began in the middle of the last decade.
All across the region, from established “artsy” places such as Amherst and Northampton to newcomers like Pittsfield and Holyoke, the politics of the cultural economy is taking firm hold.
But not every city and town in Western Massachusetts is banking on the arts to recover from its respective economic doldrums.
The city of Springfield, in particular, has shown little interest in promoting the arts, and is instead looking to another kind of tourist attraction altogether as a solution to its financial woes: a casino gambling resort.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno was at one time actually in favor of a casino resort going to Palmer instead of Springfield, as long as local businesses benefited from any residual tourist spending. But he has since changed his mind on the subject – and in a big way. These days, the Mayor is one of the strongest proponents of seeing a casino resort come to the City of Homes.
The Springfield City Council is likewise getting into the act as Council President Jimmy Ferrera has established a 15-member Casino Site Committee, headed up by former Springfield Police Chief Paula Meara, to explore the city’s options.
But a casino resort certainly isn’t the only game in town for the people of Springfield. In fact, when it comes to creating a stable, long-term-focused local economy built for generations to come, it very well may not even be the best bet in town.
Brian Hale is the co-owner (along with his wife, Deanna) of Design Workshops, Inc., out of Indian Orchard, and also the executive director of the Bing Arts Center, a project of the non-profit X Main Street Corporation located in Springfield’s Forest Park neighborhood. Hale is a long-time champion of the arts in Springfield and is very much against a proposed casino resort coming to the city.
“An objective look at casinos in the region clearly shows that they don’t foster healthy growth of civic pride,” Hale wrote in a recent letter to the Intruder. “Casinos draw people and their money into an area, but they act like a vacuum, sucking revenue out of the community and focusing their spending instead within their facilities.”
In the long run, Hale wrote, he doesn’t see local businesses benefiting from having a casino resort as a neighbor. “Surrounding businesses lose far more than they gain, and the process certainly doesn’t contribute to community growth and morale. [Casino] profits leave the community rather than being reinvested in it.”
The arts, Hale believes, are a much more sustainable alternative to the “give us money now” promise of riches that so many officials are hoping casino gambling will offer.
“Emphasis on the arts draws people and their money to an area,” Hale wrote, “which increases the revenue for that area and its businesses. It also fosters development of the creative economy with all the associated positive benefits, like economic and cultural development, improved quality of life, and growth of civic morale – all of which are crucially important but often discounted or ignored.”
But unfortunately for backers of the arts in Springfield, their devotion to the idea of an arts-based economy isn’t shared by very many officials running the city. Some of the former also feel that, perhaps out of necessity, a casino located in downtown Springfield might be the draw that brings people in to see the city’s other, more cultural attractions.
“The city hasn’t done a thing to promote Springfield as an arts center,” said a frustrated Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin Real Estate, in a recent conversation with the Intruder.
Plotkin has been a strong and vocal supporter of the arts in Springfield for very many years. In all that time, too, he’s pretty much had to go it alone, with a rebellious “if they won’t do it, I will” spirit driving him on.
It was Plotkin, sources tell the Intruder, who was the driving force behind the UMass-Springfield downtown partnership. The arts philanthropist has also transformed his One Financial Plaza building into a bit of an arts center of its own, complete with a sculptured outdoor courtyard, studio space, and a lobby serving as a gallery for local artists.
Because of his own lack of confidence in the city’s willingness to help promote the arts, Plotkin said he actually supports the idea of a casino resort coming to Springfield – but only if that resort is located in the downtown area of the city and only if the resort is not operated as an insulated, self-contained complex.
“If they are philanthropistic towards the arts, if they provide the opportunity for their customers to visit places [downtown],” said Plotkin, he would throw his support behind a casino resort in the city. The bottom line, he said, was “we need money to invest in the downtown.”
Downtown Springfield, Plotkin said, needs to be a place where young people want to be. “The human element has to be there first,” he said, “and then the business – the retail, the coffee shops, the galleries – will all follow. Young people will want to live here.”
With the influx of workers that a casino resort would provide, Plotkin foresees a gradual raising of living standards downtown. “You would start to see a gentrification of the housing market,” he said, “and that would in turn cause greater demand for retail.”
But Plotkin isn’t nearly as optimistic when it comes to the possibility of a casino resort being located in a nearby town – or even in a Springfield suburb.
As he sees it, a casino located in Holyoke or Palmer would only compete with Springfield for jobs and downtown business. And when asked about a proposed site in East Springfield, where casino company Ameristar recently purchased $16 million in land, Plotkin seemed profoundly skeptical of the idea. “I don’t see that as a viable site at all,” he said of the plan.
Like Plotkin, Springfield City Councilor Timothy Rooke said he also favors a downtown casino that would utilize businesses already located there.
“The issue at hand is whether any casino would even offer a proposal that has a physical casino in one location and then uses other off-site locations already in place for entertainment – such as Symphony Hall, the Paramount or the MassMutual Center,” Rooke wrote in an email to the Intruder. He suggested that a shuttle service of some kind might even be used to help casino customers get around downtown. “That’s what I envision and what I’m positioning myself to support,” he added.
(In a recent editorial, meanwhile, Reminder Publications managing editor Mike Dobbs expressed his own view on a downtown casino: “As a Springfield resident, I’m having problems wrapping my head around the idea of a downtown casino — especially one that would simply be a gambling a parlor with the food and entertainment located at existing restaurants and venues such as Symphony Hall,” wrote Dobbs. “It’s hard for me to believe a deal could be cut with a major casino developer that would include such provisions.”)
Rooke has been one of the few politicians in Springfield to do more than simply talk up the arts. Back in 2009, he invited a small group of local business leaders and members of the media (this writer included) to join him on a trip to Pittsfield to check out what that city was doing to transform itself into a Berkshire cultural mecca. (Rooke had also invited his colleagues on the City Council as well as the Mayor, but none of them took him up on the offer.) When Rook returned, he made a pitch to both his fellow councilors and the city’s then-chief development officer, John Judge, for the city to study its own arts initiative. He received a lukewarm response, however, and the idea eventually died away.
These days, instead, city leaders are pinning their hopes on a casino resort coming to town and saving the day. With Mayor Sarno leading the charge and a receptive City Council seemingly on board, Springfield stands a better-than-average chance of seeing this new vision of Springfield’s future become a reality.
But if a casino resort does come to the City of Homes, will it be the dream so many of us had hoped for, or will it be the nightmare so many others feared it would become?
The information we’re getting thus far can be conflicting.
A 2009 report released by the research firm Spectrum Gaming Group for the State of Connecticut, for example, detailed the impact of the state’s two casino resorts, Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun. According to the study, in neighboring Massachusetts, that state’s Gambling Hotline program recorded “more than one third of the calls came from people who had gambled at casinos, and those callers live in Massachusetts, a state that does not have casinos.” The number of embezzlement cases, meanwhile, has risen sharply in the years since casinos opened in Connecticut. “No other state that reported 40 or more embezzlements in 1992 has had a higher percentage increase than Connecticut‘s 397 percent rise from that year to 2005,” the report noted. “The state‘s increase is nearly 10 times that of the national average.”
Towns surrounding the casinos have also had to deal with an increase in municipal expenses on code enforcement, education, and other expenses.
Housing code violations are a big problem in communities neighboring the casinos, the report notes, with casino workers allegedly being warehoused in single family homes that have been sectioned off into units to accommodate large numbers of people, and where they actually share space according to what shift they work at the casinos in a practice called “hotbedding.” (You may be familiar with this term from its use on submarines.) The report further stated that towns experienced a large influx of non-English speaking immigrants looking for casino work. As of 2007, “workers account[ed] for nearly one of five Norwich residents,” the report noted. “The graduation rate for the class of 2007 was just 33 percent. The second worst district was Windham with a rate of 81 percent.” (Emphasis ours.)
Conversely, though, a story published by the Associated Press just this past February painted a far rosier picture of the cities and towns surrounding the Connecticut casinos. One headline from that story actually read, “Crime Fell Around Casinos Since Openings” – a rather misleading headline that implied lower rates were due to the presence of the casinos, when actually the lower rate was part of an overall lower crime rate being reported both statewide and nationwide. Even so, the AP story was forced to acknowledge, “Thefts did rise substantially after Foxwoods Resort Casino opened. Larcenies account for most of the crimes that occur in both the casinos.”
To a large extent, whether or not you stand in favor of a casino in your community will likely depend on which of the above angles you’re more apt to believe.
For some people, though, the issue will always be crystal clear in their minds.
“Investment in the arts yields nothing but winners,” wrote Hale at the end of his letter to the Intruder. But if Springfield does find itself with a casino in its future, Hale finished, “The casinos win and the communities lose.”