Sept. 09--WEST SPRINGFIELD -- Residents will vote Tuesday to support or reject a proposal by Hard Rock International to build an $800 million resort casino on the grounds of the Big E.
New England's largest fair, which opens just three days after the vote, is the signature event in town and will be very much on the minds of voters as they go to the polls.
Developing a casino on open land at the Big E -- more properly known as the Eastern States Exposition -- would generate millions of dollars in lease money and up-front funds for much-needed capital improvements to fairground facilities such as the 5,000-seat coliseum.
But it would also generate extra traffic all year long in a city that endures clogged thoroughfares, sometimes for miles around, every September when the Big E is open for business.
In the balance is Hard Rock Hotel & Casino New England, a 100,000-square-foot casino with 100 table games, such as roulette and blackjack, and 2,500 slot machines. The plan calls for a Hard Rock Cafe, a live music venue that could seat 3,500 people for shows twice a month, a music memorabilia exhibition, meeting space, and a retail and dining area of about 100,000 square feet.
The proposal is one of three to build a casino in western Massachusetts. Only one will be allowed in the region under state law. The competing plans are by MGM Resorts International across the Connecticut River in Springfield and Mohegan Sun in the rural town of Palmer
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission makes the final decision. But before any plan is considered by state officials, each casino developer must have a signed agreement with its host town and support from a majority of the town's voters.
Springfield voters have already embraced the MGM plan. A vote in Palmer is scheduled Nov. 5.
Hard Rock promises to spend $270 million in the region annually, not to mention millions of dollars to both the town and the Big E. Casino executives say they will bring 3,500 permanent jobs to Hampden County and 2,700 construction jobs while the venue is built between 2014 and 2016.
Hard Rock would pay the fairgrounds $3 million as an annual lease on 38 acres currently used for parking, and tens of millions of dollars more for the city in the first year. The casino would build a parking garage and realign other land for parking, increasing the total number of parking spaces by 1,000.
It's a giant proposal that supporters say would provide much-needed capital to maintain and renovate the 44 aging buildings on the 175-acre fairgrounds.
If Hard Rock is approved by voters and the gaming commission, it has a plan to widen state Route 147, which leads to various gates at the Eastern States Exposition. The traffic plan also includes improved access to both Route 147, which is Memorial Avenue, and U.S. Route 5.
All told, the casino would involve more than $40 million in upfront investment to roads, infrastructure and contributions to public safety. The "host community agreement" between Hard Rock and West Springfield also calls for more than $26 million in annual payments to the community and the region, including a minimum of $18 million each year to West Springfield and payments to neighboring towns.
Eugene J. Cassidy, CEO of the Eastern States Exposition, said the Hard Rock plan offers more to the region than plans by Mohegan Sun and MGM. A "regional partners fund" is structured to offer $3 million each year that will rotate between West Springfield, Springfield, Agawam, Holyoke, Chicopee and Westfield.
Hard Rock is an attractive partner because of its financial stability and diversified business plan, Cassidy said.
"What's Hard Rock?" Cassidy said. "Well, Hard Rock is food. Hard Rock is certainly music memorabilia. You can't go into a resort or a airport anywhere in the world and not see someone wearing a Hard Rock piece of clothing."