Opinion: News on MGM apartments comes as a big surprise

5/4/2017 | G. Michael Dobbs

Category: May 2017

Reminder Publications file photo

Let me cast an assumption aside: while at times I’m cynical and jaded, I can still be surprised and shocked.

My mouth was certainly hanging open at the Casino Oversight committee hearing last week.

Aside from a brief appearance by a local TV videographer, I was the only reporter there and the only member of the press that reported the phrase “affordable housing” was used in the description of the status of the 54 apartments MGM is obligated to construct as part of the casino project.

You might recall the original plan was to build these housing units as part of the casino. That’s right, initially you could live at the casino. I can’t even imagine what that would be like or who would want that situation. The problem was that to recoup its investment the rents would be far more expensive than what one would expect in Springfield.

So the idea was adjusted to move the apartments out of the casino, but keep them in downtown. The city and MGM brass jointly announced that 30 of the apartments would be located at 195 State St. in the former School Department building last year.

Now, the focus is putting all 54 apartments at 31 Elm St. or the Court Square building.

At no time until last week was the phrase “affordable housing” ever used in describing the project. The phrase means subsidized housing, something of which Springfield has plenty. It needs market rate housing and the success of Silverbrick Lofts shows that when the right developers implement a good plan middle class residents can be attracted back to downtown.

I saw Mayor Domenic Sarno at an event on Friday and asked him why this description was used. His reaction was emphatic: the MGM apartments will be market rate.

He said the deal that is being struck between the Springfield Redevelopment Authority (which owns the building), Opal Development (which is the preferred developer), MGM and the city is “very complicated.” Sarno added that when one is discussing the use for various tax credits to finance a project such as this there might be a requirement for so many units of affordable housing.

He stressed, though, the project still remains market rate. The mayor also made sure I understood that if something wasn’t done to secure and preserve that building, it may eventually have to be demolished, something he doesn’t want to see.

Since no agreement has been struck as yet, it’s difficult to comment, however I would assume – and I may be wrong – that if an affordable housing component is added to the project that change might have to go before both the City Council and the Gaming Commission for approval.

What surprised me is the idea that MGM would seek to use outside funding to underwrite this part of their venture. Why would they need to use some sort of tax credits? Wasn’t this just part of their overall construction budget?

There isn’t anyone in the city who would like to see the Court Square building find a new use more than me, but my question about this location is where would tenants park? In the MGM parking garage two blocks away? At the Civic Center parking garage a block away? That’s a pain every time you buy groceries.

Or would a parking garage be built to service the apartments and if so what building would have to be demolished in order to make room for it? Who is going to pay for that? MGM? The city?

Once again I would like to thank MGM for providing this old reporter another interesting story. In a way I will be saddened when the casino is built and a new normal descends upon downtown as I’m thinking these kinds of stories will dry up in the new climate of simply running – instead of building – a casino.

That however is when I’ve been thinking about writing a book about this whole damn process. I think it will be entertaining.

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