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Editorial: Springfield’s suitors include UMass as well as MGM Resorts International

News item: A powerhouse institution seeks to plant its flag in Springfield, with promises of economic gains for all involved. An official opines: “This is a resilient city with determined people who already have begun to set the stage for an epic comeback story.”

While the University of Massachusetts is the latest institution to seek space for operations in Springfield, that statement actually appears on the MGM Resorts International website for its $800 million Springfield project and refers to its quest to win a state competition for a western Massachusetts casino.

And so, as UMass moves toward a Sept. 3 deadline to locate 25,000 square feet of downtown space, its wish to be part of Springfield’s revitalization coincides with a big-money push by one of the world’s leading gambling companies.

UMass President Robert L. Caret, who floated the idea of a Springfield satellite campus soon after taking his job in 2011, argues that needs in the region’s largest city call to his school’s mission of service.

“It takes a village, after all, to make a vibrant destination city. And we want to be in this together with you, Springfield.”

Wait, that’s MGM again. But the rhetoric is eerily similar. What Caret actually said this week is that it is the university’s duty “to build better lives and futures for people and communities, which is what this would represent.”

The two institutions’ paths may or may not intersect. UMass says it will decide whether to create a Springfield annex after weighing the costs — and expense should be foremost in the calculus, since the school’s mission must also embrace responsible use of taxpayer money.

MGM must still make it to the top of the heap and beat out Mohegan Sun’s plan for Palmer and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino’s pitch for West Springfield.

MGM already has connected with higher education in the Valley, for the area’s community colleges stand prepared to help train a casino labor force. That’s interesting, because the UMass proposal would create an alternative to the community-college track for residents of the Springfield area; UMass would offer a two-year associate’s degree. Being able to take classes in Springfield would save students a roughly 25-mile trip to Amherst. Ann Scales, a spokeswoman for Caret, said officials are confident demand justifies the investment in Springfield office space.

MGM and its competitors are glad-handing like there’s no tomorrow. MGM has spent heavily to woo the city and succeeded last month in winning residents’ support in a referendum. It is already an engine of prosperity in Springfield, long before cherries and grapes spin in slot machines.

Part of its pitch seems emotional: It is targeting a 10-acre area in the South End heavily damaged by the June 2011 tornadoes.

As far as generosity goes, things may be different if and when its project prevails and it secures the right to monopolize the western Massachusetts casino market. MGM has agreed to pay Springfield $25 million a year if it wins a license and opens. It paid a non-refundable $400,000 fee simply to be considered by the state gambling commission, which is expected to pick a casino operator early next year.

As a business, MGM would work to recoup those investments.

There is good work for UMass to achieve in Springfield, just as at the university’s five primary campuses. Its presence in Springfield would, to some degree, stimulate economic activity. The university may also make itself useful by addressing social fallout from the birth of a casino industry.

Whatever happens, the best way to measure its success is through use by students. A Springfield UMass campus earns its keep if those enrolled attain skills that build employment and help families prosper.

If it becomes a battle of brands, or in any sense empire-building, that will not serve the public interest. In saying that, we mean UMass. No one really expects the eventual casino operator to care about that sort of thing, after the honeymoon is over.

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