In a few days, Massachusetts voters will decide whether to keep the state’s casino law in place, or repeal it. That vote will have big implications for the South End of Springfield, where an MGM casino has been approved by voters and the state gambling board. The neighborhood has struggled economically for decades, and was further hampered by a tornado that hit three years ago. Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, a look at how some in the South End view the prospect of a casino.
It’s difficult to find a business owner in this area who supports the casino repeal. I couldn’t find a single store displaying a “Vote Yes” campaign sign. But there are plenty of businesses plastered with “Vote No” signs – supporters of the Springfield casino. Dave’s Furniture on Main Street is one of them.
“This [casino] can only help this area, it can’t hurt it,” says the store’s manager Linda Guidetti. She says the 2011 tornado delivered a hard blow to the whole neighborhood.
“Business never came back,” says Guidetti. “We’re putting our own money into the business now after being down here 36 years. Downtown isn’t vital like it used to be.”
Guidetti’s store is in the footprint of the casino plan, so she has an extra reason to support the project: a deal in place to sell her property to MGM.
“It’s been a long time down here, and it’s time… either way if they didn’t come, we’re selling the property anyway,” says Guidetti.
Down the street, David Glantz, owner of Buckeye Brothers Smoke Shop, says the South End and Downtown have been on the decline for many years.
“There’s no businesses down here, you can walk down the street, you can’t buy a pair of socks, there’s not a men’s store downtown,” says Glantz. “You couldn’t buy a pair of socks or a shirt if you wanted to.”
Glantz’s shop is just outside the area where MGM plans to build. He says he’ll keep his business here, and thinks the new casino will be good for this neighborhood where he works, and lives. His house is just down the block.
“The green and white house right there with the nice front porch?” says Glantz, pointing to his house down the street. “Who would be more affected by the casino than me? It would be right on my doorstep. For the safety aspect alone, I mean, you think a casino’s coming here to invest $800 million, they’ll let people get robbed? They’re going to have security. They’ll have cameras all over the place.”
The problems today in this neighborhood – security concerns and struggling businesses – that hasn’t always been the tale of the South End. Beginning in the late 1800’s, this was a crowded, Italian immigrant community, with residential neighborhoods, shops, restaurants, and anchored by factories like Milton Bradley and Smith & Wesson.
“People needed to be close to the factories, and so the South End developed as a very thriving neighborhood during that time period,” says Guy McLain, director of the Springfield History Museum. After the South End’s heyday, McLain says two things radically altered the area: suburban migration in the 1950’s, and then the creation of I-91, which cut through Springfield, dividing the city from the Connecticut River.
“It really should have been on the other side of the river, where there was a smaller population, but the highway came right through the South End, and basically devastated the neighborhood,” McLain says.
Though much of the Italian community left the South End, an Italian identity is still maintained through several iconic restaurants and shops like Red Rose Pizza, and Frigo’s Deli. MGM plans to integrate those businesses into its casino development. Some Italian families also return to church in the South End, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where Father Robert White is the pastor. The church is two blocks from the casino site. White worries about church attendance if construction starts.
“We depend almost entirely on people driving here, that if they find it difficult to get through, they’ll probably just go someplace else that’s a little more convenient,” White says.
White opposes casinos for reasons beyond traffic. He says in meetings he’s attended with M-G-M, the company didn’t give an example of a successful urban casino outside of Las Vegas.
“The casino industry’s presentation to this community is that it’s going to a unique kind of casino, it’s going to be different than any casino anywhere else,” says White. “I’m just not sure how they’re going to deliver on those kind of promises.”
White says in the casino’s first year, everyone will come to check it out, including himself. But he says soon they’ll settle into their “core constituency.” He believes that will lead to more problem gambling, and perhaps a different mission for his church.
“There are people who are going to really lose, and are going to need a way to get home, or a way to tell their family or spouse that they’ve had a very bad experience here. Traditionally people go to their church for that sort of help,” White says.
If the referendum fails, and the casino comes in, big changes are afoot for this old neighborhood. Linda Giudetti, who plans to sell her furniture store to MGM, isn’t sentimental.
“I’m 60 years old, I’m ready. Early retirement works for me,” she says.
If MGM’s proposal dies, Giudetti, and David Glantz, the smoke shop owner, say it will mean more of the same – crime, and struggling businesses in the South End. But historian Guy McLain sees the potential for an alternative. He says after the long national trend of people moving out of the city for the suburbs.
“That trend seems to have stopped, and we seem to be going back in the other direction. That spells good news for Springfield in the future,” McLain says.
Lots of uncertainty remains for Springfield’s South End, but one way or the other, the vote on Tuesday will bring some answers.