SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) - Voters in Springfield on Tuesday approved a casino agreement between city officials and MGM Resorts International to compete for one of three regional resort casino licenses allowed under the state's new gambling law.
The referendum marks a key milestone for MGM, which has proposed an $800 million resort casino in the city's South End.
Complete unofficial returns showed the referendum passed by 58 percent to 42 percent, with 24,278 votes cast, a turnout of nearly 25 percent of registered voters. The state's casino law requires voter approval of a host community agreement before a prospective casino developer can apply to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.
MGM promised in the agreement with Mayor Domenic Sarno to pay Springfield more than $25 million a year if the casino gets built. The proposal could be in competition with two others for the western Massachusetts license. Mohegan Sun has proposed a resort casino for the town of Palmer and Hard Rock has a plan for the Eastern States Exhibition in the city of West Springfield. Votes on those proposals could be cast in September.
Springfield, a working class city of about 150,000, is the state's third-largest.
Bill Hornbuckle, MGM's president and chief marketing officer, says the casino is a "once in a lifetime opportunity" for Springfield. In addition to the annual revenue for the city, he says, the project would deliver 3,000 permanent jobs and 2,000 temporary construction jobs. MGM has committed to offering 35 percent of the jobs to Springfield residents and 90 percent to people within the region.
Campaign finance records show MGM spent nearly $1 million through the end of last month on the effort to win voter approval, while opponents said they spent only about $1,000 during that time.
Critics say a casino would prey on low-income and elderly residents and lead to crime and traffic problems.
Michael Kogut, head of Citizens Against Casino Gaming, said Tuesday's outcome was not a surprise, and the group will now focus on convincing the gaming commission not to award MGM a license.
Supporters of casino development say it would boost a city that has been down on its luck in recent times.
Known for being the birthplace of basketball and home of the Basketball Hall of Fame, the city teetered on bankruptcy in the early part of the last decade before a state-run board was brought in to manage its fiscal affairs for five years until 2009.
Areas of the city, including where the MGM casino is proposed, were heavily damaged by a tornado in June 2011. Last November, a natural gas explosion in another part of the city destroyed one building and damaged about 40 others.
In addition to the annual payments, MGM has pledged to make transportation improvements and guarantee that at least 35 percent of the jobs created by the casino go to Springfield residents, and 90 percent to people who live in the region.
MGM faces other hurdles before it can formally apply for the western license, including a requirement that it meet with nearby cities and towns and take steps to lessen any potentially adverse impacts on those communities.
The commission could award licenses in the eastern and western regions early next year. The status of the third region, southeastern Massachusetts, remains uncertain as the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe pursues a federal land-in-trust agreement for its plan to build a casino in Taunton.