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Berkshire groups, MGM Springfield trying to make new casino, Western Mass. tourism a winning pair | The Berkshire Eagle

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Berkshire groups, MGM Springfield trying to make new casino, Western Mass. tourism a winning pair | The Berkshire Eagle

By Kristin Palpini, The Berkshire Eagle

What would encourage vacationers to roll the dice on the Berkshires?

This is a question that area tourism officials and community leaders need to make in the coming months as MGM Springfield prepares for its grand opening and starts to market the new gambling resort — and Western Massachusetts — to the estimated 9 million adults living within a 90-minute drive of the city.

"It's like handing us a whole new marketing budget, so we're really excited about that," said local tourism promoter 1Berkshire's Executive Vice President Lauri Klefos. "We're hoping that what we can do especially with [MGM] is build some of our off-season business. Let's see if we can package with them to say, `While you're in the area, come over to the Lee Premium Outlets' or something like that, `come to the Norman Rockwell,' `enjoy the culture.'"

As MGM Springfield plans to open the $960 million resort-style hotel and casino a month ahead of schedule — Aug. 24 — the much anticipated and talked about partnerships between MGM and Western Massachusetts should be coming together over the next four months.

MGM has pledged to spend $50 million with local vendors, hire locals, hold events such as large performances at venues around Springfield, and promote and partner with Western Massachusetts tourism initiatives.

So is that happening?

People in the tourism industry see positive signs pointing toward contracts and partnerships coming together, though firm commitments are still in development, and nonprofit performing arts venues are concerned about competing against casinos to book acts.

"We are not noticing something directly — our sales are strong," said Beryl Jolly, executive director of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington. "But my concern partly is because of the booking radius. Depending on the talents [casinos are] booking and the timeframes, those people would be unavailable for other venues or they could be offering competing talent to whatever talent we might be presenting that night."

MGM Springfield General Manager Alex Dixon said the casino — which will feature 2,500 slot machines, 94 table games, 23 poker tables, spa, restaurants, movie theater, bowling alley and rooftop garden — is working with tourism professionals in the Berkshires and around Western Massachusetts to promote the area.

It's a rising tide lifts all boats kind of mentality. The thinking goes, the more reasons you give a person to come to Western Massachusetts, the more likely they are to visit here — and gamble.

"From a player development or high-end guests standpoint, there are so many amenities within Berkshire County," Dixon said. "It's an opportunity for us to showcase what is great about Western Massachusetts."

And as an aside, he noted, "I don't need to describe how amazing Tanglewood is to you."

Local vendors

Before MGM Springfield beat out its competitors and was awarded a license by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in 2014, the casino resort had to sell the plan to voters. Proposed casinos needed to have the support of their host communities to apply for one of the state's three available casino gambling licenses. Among the perks MGM offered Western Massachusetts if selected was $50 million spent via local vendors.

Dixon said most contracts with local vendors are still being sought or negotiated. The few that seem the most likely, and Dixon felt comfortable confirming, are contracts with Berkshire Mountain Distillers in Sheffield and Berkshire Brewing Co. in Deerfield.

"Those groups are on our radar and we're building a stronger relationship," Dixon said. "Our head of food and beverage has been working with them for some time. As we near our opening, it's exciting what kinds of things we'll be doing together."

Hiring

In late April, MGM Springfield released its full list of open job positions — about 3,000 of them. Although the casino is a half-hour to an hour away from most parts of the Berkshires, within about a week of MGM accepting job applications, 160 people from Berkshire County have applied.

"We're thrilled about having that already in the queue and we're still months away from fleshing out the whole team," Dixon said. "Our jobs message is reaching out to Berkshire County ... and we're encouraged on that front."

However, due to the long commute, Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Betsy Andrus said she doesn't expect MGM to be a large employer of Berkshire County residents.

"This county already struggles with transportation for the average worker even if they're only 5 miles away. I can't picture that's the same group of people having the ability to get to Springfield to work," Andrus said.

Performance space

While there is a lot of hope and enthusiasm for what MGM Springfield could mean for the Berkshires, there is also a bit of anxiety. That uneasy feeling is mostly being felt by the people who run performing arts spaces that may now be in competition with MGM Springfield as well as the year-old Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady, N.Y. While many local performing spaces are nonprofits, casinos often have the ability to pay top dollar for the most popular artists and give many of the tickets away for free or at a reduced price to guests.

"Nonprofit theaters create community and social profit in different ways and then there's the education program," Jolly said. "We're a very different business model than what the casinos will be doing."

The Massachusetts Cultural Council is launching a new grant program to aid performing arts spaces impacted by casinos across the state. The council will receive 2 percent of tax revenue generated by casinos, which will be about $4 million per year, said Executive Director Anita Walker. About three-quarters of this money — $3 million — would be dedicated to nonprofit and municipally owned performance spaces that are at a competitive disadvantage to the casinos.

"There's a strong feeling that [performing art centers will] feel the negative impact quickly," Walker said. "There will be a lot of excitement and enthusiasm; I'm sure the casinos are already booking and arts centers are already facing that competition, I imagine."

A start date for the grant program is yet to be set, Walker said, the channels for how, when and the frequency of funds to the Cultural Council are still being established. The earliest the program may be able to award money is winter.

"Rather than waiting for a whole year then distributing the money the following year — we wouldn't want to wait much longer than six months," Walker said.

Dixon said MGM Springfield didn't build a large stage within the resort and will hold casino shows at local venues including the MassMutual Center in Springfield. It was unclear whether MGM Springfield would ask performers to sign agreements that would restrict artists' abilities to perform elsewhere in the area around the same time.

"A lot of that is per artist," Dixon said.

Tourism

Dixon said the appeal of the Berkshires is obvious to MGM brass who took an executive retreat in the area in December — and have since returned for fun. And he's sure people interested in exploring more of Western Massachusetts while visiting MGM Springfield will see that, too. He's also expecting the reverse: some people who are visiting the Berkshires may take day trips to MGM.

Promotional materials for the Berkshires and for MGM Springfield are anticipated to be part of both attractions' marketing, Walker and Dixon said in separate interviews.

That retreat "was gorgeous and it really allowed us two days to just go and run clear our minds and to absorb the beauty of Western Mass.," Dixon said, "but it also really set the framework how to connect the culture here to Springfield."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , @kristinpalpini on Twitter, 413-629-4621.

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