Opinion: Interesting how the MGM apartment story developed

6/15/2017 | G. Michael Dobbs

Category: June

How a story evolves is of great interest to me and it should be to people who really want to understand how things work.

Let’s consider the way the story about the MGM’s commitment to building 54 market rate housing merged with the on-going story of what is happening with the great historic building at 31 Elms St.

As I noted in a previous column that building was identified in the Urban Land Institute’s 2006 analysis of downtown Springfield as a vital piece of the overall redevelopment puzzle. And I’m sure you all know MGM has a commitment to build, operate and brand 54 market-rate apartments in the downtown.

Until the Casino Oversight Committee met on April 24, the issue of the apartments was a non-subject. Nothing was happening at the former School Department building on State Street, which MGM now owns and had been announced to be the home of 30 of those apartments. I’ve asked MGM in the past what was happening, but the responses were not specific.

The apartments were on the back burner.

Then on April 24, during that meeting MGM brass were asked about the apartments and two words were used that lit a fuse: “affordable housing.”

Without giving any specifics about any deal involving 31 Elms St., MGM officials changed the complete discussion about the apartments as defined by the Host Community Agreement.

An answer given to me by Mayor Domenic Sarno about the use of tax credits at 31 Elms St. only made the story more intriguing to me. What the hell was happening? Especially since a casino could not use tax credits as stipulated by law.

At the Gaming Commission meeting on May 25, MGM Attorney Seth Stratton characterized the casinos giant’s involvement in the planning of fulfilling its commitment to the apartment component at 31 Elm as being “on the bus, but we’re not driving.”

That response did not sit well with Commission Chair Stephen Crosby who reminded MGM of its original plan.

It was difficult for me to see MGM, clearly a detailed oriented company, as playing a passive role in the issue of the apartments, but that was the story.

Stratton added on May 25, that if the company did not like the solution that was being developed, they would build the apartments on their own somewhere else.

Now, though, on June 8, Stratton affirmed how much MGM embraced the idea of playing a role in the development of the apartments. Obviously the party line had changed a bit since the Gaming Commission meeting.

It’s been like watching a tennis match.

MGM should love this deal. For their $11 million contribution into the budget for the redevelopment of 31 Elms St. the company gets out of their commitment to be a landlord. It’s one less complication for it. Of course, MGM must now work with the City Council in crafting an amendment about the apartments that will pass the council and appease the Gaming Commission, but that is easy compared to actually making 31 Elms St. a reality as proposed.

And 12 of the 60 apartments that are being planned by Opal/Winn are not going to be subsidized units – or “affordable housing,” but rather “workforce” housing designed for people with incomes from $42,000 to $61,000.

Of course now, there is much heavy lifting to make any of this happen for the developers. MGM’s role has gone from actually having to build, rent and manage an apartments complex or two to simply writing a check and walking away.

I don’t really care as long as there are market rate apartments funded by MGM downtown. If 31 Elm St. becomes a reality it will be a home run.

Is this too much inside baseball? Perhaps, but I enjoy the nature of how this story developed. It’s like watching a rabbit zigzag across a field to avoid a dog. Much of the turmoil of this story could have been avoided if MGM hadn’t used the phrase “affordable housing” and had characterized their role in the development as something other than being a bystander.

That is just a slight bump in the road, however it’s just another chapter in my proposed book about Western Massachusetts and casinos.

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