SPRINGFIELD – Long before any gambling may take place, levers of a different sort will be pulled in Springfield on Tuesday, July 16, when a city-wide referendum will be held on the casino issue here.
Voters are being asked if they support a proposal by MGM Resorts International to build and operate a resort casino in the South End neighborhood of the city.
Proponents tout the creation of jobs and believe that it will help the sagging local economy while boosting city and state coffers. Opponents say that social ills, such as an increase in crime and addiction to gambling, make the venture unsuitable.
“Jesus' very first sermon, his very first words were, 'I come to bring good news to the poor,'” said Bishop Douglas J. Fisher, ordinary of The Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. “And casinos are bad news for the poor.
“In terms of a continual scriptural reference, here's Jesus, on Good Friday, Jesus is stripped of his clothes and crucified and what do the Roman soldiers do but they roll dice for his clothes, taking advantage again of a poor man. And, every place casinos have gone, they've taken advantage of the poor,” Bishop Fisher told iobserve.
Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell made his thoughts known to the nearly 230,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Springfield in this month's issue of The Catholic Mirror, the diocesan magazine that is mailed to more than 60,000 households across western Massachusetts.
In his column, Bishop McDonnell referenced a statement that he and the other Catholic bishops of Massachusetts made in 2011. “While the Catholic Church views gambling as a legitimate form of entertainment when done in moderation,” the statement said, “the gaming legislation opens the door to a new form of predatory gaming which threatens the moral fabric of our society.”
But MGM officials say that measures will be in place to combat problem gambling.
“We fund research, we have intervention practices,” said Kelley Tucky, a vice president for communications and public affairs for MGM Resorts International. “And then, by the Massachusetts legislation (which authorized gaming in the Commonwealth), we will be required to have a facility on-site.
“We would go above and beyond anyway,” Tucky continued, “but the legislation is very clear about their expectations for providing a facility that would be open 24/7 to help people get the referral that they need and get the help they need to take care of that addiction.”
Tucky said that the complex, which would be built between State Street and Union Street and have East Columbus Avenue and Main Street as its east and west boundaries, will revitalize the tornado-ravaged South End and bring 3,000 permanent jobs to the city.
“In a city that's been plagued by an economic downturn and the loss of jobs, bringing that kind of energy and revitalization back to a city like this means a lot,” she said.
As part of the host agreement with the city of Springfield, MGM guarantees $25 million dollars per year to the city. They also are guaranteeing funds for increased public safety personnel.
But opponents just don't trust the promises, saying that real estate values will decrease and crime will increase. As part of his opposition efforts, Bishop Fisher and members of his diocese have partnered with the Western Massachusetts Council of Churches in their mobilization effort – Citizens Against Casino Gaming – to oppose a Springfield casino.
Tucky said she is optimistic about the outcome of the special election.
“(I’m) feeling good about the vote,” she said. “We have spent so many months and hours and weeks and weeks on the ground … (and) based on what people are asking us and what people are telling us, we feel good about our chances.”
“And as a person of faith, I'm a person of hope. And so, I believe we will take the side of the poor,” Bishop Fisher said. “We will say that this hurts the poor of our city. And so, I'm hopeful for July 16th.”
Even if the measure passes, the issue would be far from settled. Only one gaming license will be granted for western Massachusetts. MGM would still be competing against two other proposals, one in West Springfield and one in Palmer, for the approval of the Massachusetts gaming commission to be the western Massachusetts licensee. Host agreements and referendums in those towns have yet to be completed. It will likely be after the first quarter of 2014 before a final site decision is made.
Bishop Fisher said that the work of his diocese will continue no matter the outcome of the Springfield referendum. “If it's a yes vote ... we'll continue to do the social services we've always done and see what more social services we can do to help those who are hurt by the casino.
“If it's a no vote, we will continue to educate people in terms of what casinos do because then, there's going to be a vote in West Springfield, there's going to be a vote in Palmer and so, we certainly care about the people in those places as well.”
While a referendum decision, yes or no, may not be an easy one, people are being urged to go to the polls on July 16 to have their choice represented.
Bishop McDonnell said in his column, “Our right to vote is a great privilege, and like all privileges it comes with the responsibility of being informed and willing to accept the responsibility for potential outcomes.”
(Editor’s notes: A link to the July/August issue of The Catholic Mirror, which contains Bishop McDonnell's complete column, is provided on the home page of iobserve.org. For more information on the MGM proposal, log on to www.yesforspringfield.com. And, to read a position paper from the Episcopal diocese, log on to www.diocesewma.org.)
For a video version of this story, tune into the July 13 edition of “Real to Reel,” the Springfield Diocese’s weekly television newsmagazine that airs Saturday evenings at 7 on WWLP-22NEWS.