MGM casino opening 'a special day' for Springfield — with nods to Berkshires

The $960 million MGM Springfield casino resort and hotel opens Friday, and Berkshire County gets a few specific nods. MGM has pledged to spend $50 million annually with local vendors, principally in Springfield, but in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties as well.

Even though the MGM casino in Springfield has been open for more a year, a provision in enabling casino law that could benefit nonprofit performing arts centers impacted by the casinos became lost in the shuffle. Happily, it has finally emerged, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) has come up with a concept that could provide a further benefit for casino revenue.

The Gaming Mitigation Program included in the gambling law by legislators provides a pool of money collected by casinos to boost performing arts centers that have lost performers or acts to the casinos, which can offer higher guarantees than can centers located in small communities in the Berkshires and Western Massachusetts. According to Anita Walker, the executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Gov. Baker's concerns about how that money would be held in trust prevented him from signing off on it until his recent signing of the fiscal 2019 deficiency budget. In a meeting with The Berkshire Eagle editorial board last week, Ms. Walker said the annual pool of funding is in the vicinity of $3 million.

At this point there is largely anecdotal evidence of the adverse impact of the Springfield casino on performing arts centers, primarily involving venues around Springfield that lost acts to the casino that they were usually getting. With funding for the mitigation program now available, those venues can apply for funds that they lost to the casino theater. Obviously documentation to back those claims will be required but the mitigation program makes sense. Performing arts venues are critical to the health of many downtowns in the region, which need them to draw foot traffic and support nearby taverns and restaurants. They and the communities they serve should not be penalized financially by competition from a casino..

The funding pool going forward should include revenue for other projects — although with MGM gambling revenue falling short of unrealistic expectations given casino glut that pool may actually decline over time. At the start of the new year, Ms. Walker will introduce a new program called Culture Rx to make use of mitigation program funds. It is based on programs instituted in the United Kingdom that link access to arts and culture to public health. Research in the UK, explained Ms. Walker during her Eagle visit, indicates that participating in arts and culture introduces what health officials call a "protective factor" reducing depression and anxiety, which can lead to physical health ailments.

The MCC will partner with the Massachusetts Health Connector, which oversees the state's subsidized health insurance program, in two programs. The "Connector Card to Culture" enables those with incomes less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level to receive free or reduced admissions to state cultural institutions. The "Social Prescription Pilot Program" enables medical professionals to write prescriptions for cultural experiences in the arts, sciences and humanities for those who may benefit. If the UK effort is a sound guide, these modest expenditures will provide long-term savings in health care costs, reducing the financial burden on the state. Two pilot social prescription programs will begin in January, one in Great Barrington involving the Macony Pediatric Group of Great Barrington, the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge and a number of local schools and community organizations.

The roll-out of the mitigation program is overdue, and we look forward to the results of the local pilot program. Gambling is accompanied by social ills, but those ills will be tempered if gambling revenue can be used for social benefits.