Sometime later in this decade a big-time resort casino is scheduled to open north of the border in western Massachusetts, most likely in Springfield. The major players are promising the beleaguered city the moon; everything from a booming, tourism-fueled economy to improved traffic and major events has come up in their presentations. If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it probably is.
Trust us, Massachusetts, your southern neighbors have been through this. Sometime in late 1998 I was driving through downtown Hartford when I saw that someone had lit the windows in the old Connecticut Natural Gas building to spell out “NFL.” The New England Patriots were coming to town, and the star-struck governor and legislature were willing to promise them pretty much everything to seal the deal. The stadium and the surrounding plan, dubbed Adriaen’s Landing after a forgotten explorer who set a trend by sailing by the site of Hartford but not actually stopping, were supposed to save the capital city from decades of neglect and decay. It didn’t work out, of course. The NFL laughed at the idea, and the spooked Massachusetts legislature quickly built the Kraft family what they’d been after all along: an overpriced stadium back in Foxboro. Bits of the Adriaen’s Landing project have been built in the years since, like the convention center and Front Street, but an unimpressed Hartford has yet to be saved.
Before that, we suffered through the lengthy fight over taking land for Pfizer in New London, which led to the controversial Kelo v. New London Supreme Court decision. A whole neighborhood was destroyed, and the big company that had supposedly committed to the area and created thousands of jobs abandoned the site less than a decade after arriving. The planned hotel and condo development was never built, and much of what was the Fort Trumbull neighborhood remains empty to this day.
This sort of phantom has manifested in the possibility of casinos in Bridgeport, a baseball stadium in Norwich, a movie studio in Preston, and even an elevated plaza in Hartford taking the place of an old neighborhood. Planners always promised everything to struggling cities and towns in order to get a foot in the door. And even if the project was built, the eventual reality was a letdown.
It’s so tempting for a place like Springfield to look at something like a massive casino resort coming to town and to dream of revival coming in a flood of tourist dollars. But what will the benefits actually be? There’s no guarantee that the jobs the casino brings will be good ones, especially if the casino doesn’t draw the necessary crowds. Gambling may bring more crime, and tourists may clog an already over-stressed road system. There’s little to suggest that casino patrons will venture out into the city to visit the museums or eat at local restaurants, either. The worst-case scenario is that the casino never delivers the economic benefit its owners are promising, and then leaves town when things go bad.
This is what I like to think of as the “savior project” theory of urban redevelopment, where outside money and business interests swoop into a city declaring that if only officials would let them build something massive and disruptive, all kinds of problems would be magically solved. The reality is almost always a lot more messy. Cities need functioning neighborhoods, affordable housing, safe and decent schools, reliable transit, strong social safety nets, and, above all, opportunity. Casinos don’t deliver any of these things. Big, high-profile developments can sometimes be a part of an overall redevelopment strategy, but it can also be an obstacle or even a step in the opposite direction. It’s easy for gullible locals to lose sight of the harsh truth: the companies pitching the big projects care far less than they claim about the towns within which they want to build.
Connecticut’s experience aside, there’s little hope of stopping this train. Soon enough the casino will be built, either in Springfield, Holyoke, or Palmer. People will come from all over and leave their money, and maybe things will actually get better. I could be completely wrong, and the people who run the casino will care about the city and help make it a better place. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.