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The First Roll of the Wheel

Springfield City Hall drops Penn National from the casino approval process.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno would prefer residents not think about the casino battle in his city in terms of “winners” and “losers.”

Last week, when Sarno announced that MGM, but not rival developer Penn National, would proceed to the next round of the casino approval process, he spoke of the need for the entire city to “together move forward to rebuild and redefine our beloved Springfield.”

The mayor’s plea notwithstanding, it’s hard to avoid the language of victory and defeat, given all that’s at stake. The biggest winner, of course: MGM. Assuming city councilors approve the agreement negotiated by the Sarno administration with MGM—and, as the Advocate went to press, they appeared poised to do so this week—the company’s plan will go before city voters, perhaps at early as July.

Ultimately, the state Gaming Commission will award one casino license in Western Mass., choosing from MGM’s plan for the South End and competing proposals in Palmer and West Springfield.

City officials see Springfield as the big winner. In his announcement, Sarno outlined some of the “game-changing” benefits promised by MGM’s $800 million project, including a $15 million initial payment to the city, followed by an “anticipated” $25 million a year in property taxes, grants and other funding; thousands of jobs, 35 percent of them reserved for city residents; and commitments to underwrite events at local venues, develop downtown housing and invest in parks, the city’s golf course and other attractions. (The full agreement can be found at www.springfield-ma.gov/casino.)

The obvious loser: Penn National, whose plan for a North End casino didn’t make the cut—although, frankly, it’s hard to shed tears for a corporation that’s no doubt used to, well, gambling on prospective projects that may or may not work out.

The same goes for Peter Picknelly, the Springfield businessman who was a 50 percent partner and local face for that project; while surely disappointed, he has plenty of other business ventures—a real estate company, a firearms distributor, his family’s Peter Pan Bus Lines—to keep his days busy and the wolf from his door.

While Picknelly was in the thick of the MGM-Penn National battle—most memorably, describing his rivals as “some goons from Las Vegas” in an interview with the Reminder—his public comments after Sarno’s announcement have focused on his optimism about Springfield’s future.

(Whether Picknelly and his wife, who’ve given Sarno several thousand dollars in campaign donations in recent years, continue that level of support remains to be seen.)

Picknelly’s comments have not, however, shed much light on whether he plans to move his bus operations into nearby Union Station. He signed a non-binding letter of intent to do so back in 2012, but more recently said that the company wouldn’t move from its current North End building unless it was to make room for the Penn National casino.

Many in the city read that as an attempt to bully city officials into picking Penn National by threatening to withhold Peter Pan’s support for the long-delayed Union Station renovation. Picknelly said he was just being a smart businessman; why would he move from a building he owns to pay rent elsewhere unless there was a good reason—namely, the casino—to do so?

Kevin Kennedy, the city’s chief economic officer (and, not incidentally, former aide to U.S. Rep. Richie Neal, who’s secured millions in federal money for Union Station) has tried to assuage worries, insisting the project will proceed with or without Peter Pan.

Last week, Picknelly remained vague about his plans, telling the Springfield Republican that he’d like to move into Union Station but adding that “the last thing the city needs is another vacant piece of property.” MGM, meanwhile, has committed to lease space at the station and invest $6.7 million in the project.

High on the list of not-winners: the Springfield Republican. Penn National had planned to buy the Republican’s building at 1860 Main St. for its casino and move the newspaper to a downtown site.

But the Republican’s loss is its readers’ gain; the selection of MGM makes moot the Republican’s ethically untenable position of covering the casino battle while having a financial stake in its outcome.

The newspaper won’t, presumably, hold a grudge against MGM—which, should it win a casino license, would be in a position to spend large and much-welcomed amounts of advertising dollars. It will be interesting, however, to track the paper’s coverage of Sarno in the wake of its don’t-call-it-a-loss loss.•

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