Tuesday September 4, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- The one casino that will be allowed in Western Massachusetts under the state's gambling law could be much closer to Berkshire County than anticipated.

While Palmer and Brimfield were originally front-runners for a casino, four developers -- including an $800 million plan by MGM International -- are zeroing in on Springfield, a roughly 50-mile drive from Pittsfield. Springfield also has been courted by casino developers Penn National, Ameristar Casinos Inc. and Hard Rock International.

"We always knew there would be a Western Massachusetts license," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield. "I guess the biggest surprise to me by far is the Western Massachusetts license seems to be the most competitive of them all. Obviously, developers see opportunity here."

The prospect of a casino a little more than an hour's drive from Pittsfield and even closer in South County raises some hope for jobs, especially in construction, and some concern for its impact on current businesses, especially the county's cultural venues.

Brian Morrison, president of the Berkshire Central Labor Council, said any Western Massachusetts casino proposal will mean a slew of construction jobs. MGM's proposal includes a 250-room hotel, 89,000 square feet of gambling space, and 70,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space.

"I couldn't give you the numbers, but I know that we're counting on thousands of construction jobs because there will be three casinos statewide," Morrison said. "We'll probably get a third of that."

According to information presented at a recent Gaming Task Force meeting in Springfield, a casino project in Western Massachusetts could employee between 1,000 and 1,500 construction workers, 2,500 to 3,000 casino workers, and an additional 1,000 to 1,500 employees who work at businesses that would benefit indirectly from such a facility.

While construction work would require a commute from the Berkshires to Springfield, Morrison said members of the Labor Council are traveling farther than Spring field to find work in Massachusetts.

"We're in favor of getting [people] back to work, whatever gets guys off the bench," Morrison said.

Heather Boulger, the executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Employ ment Board, doesn't sense that a casino located so close to the Berkshires will affect the local economy.

"I know that many of my colleagues in the travel and tourism industry have concerns that they might lose employees to the Springfield area," Boulger said. "But I view that as an opportunity to fill entry-level positions that would go to Springfield."

Michael Supranowicz, president and CEO of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, doesn't expect a casino nearer to the Berkshires to have a residual economic impact on the county.

"I don't know what kind of a spin-off business would start from a casino," Supranowicz said. "I think a casino could use local food vendors and suppliers for restaurants, but most of the clothing and apparel shops that come out of those areas are self-contained."

A casino with entertainment closer to the Berkshires could have an effect on the local tourism industry, one of the county's prime economic drivers. Specifically, concerns have been raised that contractual obligations might prevent artists from performing both in Springfield and in the Berkshires.

"I think it depends on the contracts that the performers can sign or are required to sign with the venues," said State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield. "If those agreements are such that performers can choose then it could have an impact on who we are able to get here, and who we are able to draw.

"If those locations are chosen my hope is that there will be an ongoing dialogue between the folks at the casino and in the Berkshires to build on everybody's strength, so that it will not be a zero sum game," Downing said. "But those are all unknowns at this point."

With gambling as the main attraction, casinos can also offer lower ticket prices for performers who might play in both Springfield and the Berkshires, which could also take dollars out of the local economy, said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

"In Atlantic City, they offer front-line acts for $10 a ticket," he said. "On that one night if you have a choice between Tanglewood at $50 or $60 a ticket and Springfield for $10, chances are you're probably going to Springfield.

"That's money leaving the Berkshires," Pignatelli added. "I hope the Gaming Commission has tight control over these licenses."

On the other hand, the acts that play casinos don't typically visit Berkshire cultural venues like Tanglewood in Lenox, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, or the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield.

"I don't think it will affect us," said Barrington Stage Artistic Director Julianne Boyd. "It might affect the Mahaiwe and the Colonial [Theatre, operated by the Berkshire Theatre Group] because they do more presenting. We present productions that we do ourselves."

Entertainers that play casinos are also more expensive than Berkshire venues can afford.

"They could get Ringo Starr or Barbra Streisand or Bette Midler, something like that," Boyd said. "They'll be looking for a different headliner than we can really afford here."

Downing said having a casino closer to the Berkshires does heighten people's concerns compared to having one in Palmer or Brimfield.

"We'll have to keep an eye on the process as it moves forward," he said.

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6224.