The Mega-Project Exception That Proves the Rule?

Let's begin with an editor's note:

We at Strong Towns are instinctively skeptical of large, top-down development projects, especially if public financing is involved. We have long argued that they are an inherently fragile approach to economic development, and prone to becoming expensive white-elephant relics if they fail. Our cities are littered with the detritus of previous generations' Hail Mary revitalization schemes: convention centers, entertainment districts, sports stadiums, and, of course, casinos.

But what's really the issue? Is failure intrinsic to the very idea of a "mega" project? Or is it more accurate to say that failure merely tends to follow large, top-down investments? And if so, are there large projects out there that would pass the Strong Towns litmus test in spite of their scale?

In our Cobb County series, we took a county in suburban Atlanta to task for its $400 million in public subsidy for a new stadium for the Atlanta Braves, approved with minimal transparency or democratic input.

Strong Towns founding member and frequent contributor Steven Shultis read this and thought immediately of his own city's mega-project: the MGM Springfield resort casino in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Shultis was on the Strong Towns podcast a few years ago to talk with Chuck Marohn about this very casino. Now, he's written a post arguing that if you're going to build a huge, silver-bullet project for placemaking and economic development purposes, the casino in Springfield is about the best you could do. As Shultis argues, several particular aspects of the casino serve to mitigate the risk and fragility that usually come with such endeavors: it is privately funded, in a location where very little new infrastructure is required, and situated in a walkable community where it can more easily produce spillover benefits instead of functioning as an island unto itself.

But it's still large-scale and thus not easily adaptable, still cedes a significant amount of power over the fate of one city's downtown to a single private entity, and may still raise questions of opportunity cost. So what else could have been done with this location? What does Springfield do if the casino doesn't deliver the hoped-for benefits to the city?

Read his take below, and let us know what you think in the comments!

The recent Strong Towns series on Cobb County, Georgia touched upon many of the issues endemic to the American post-war development pattern and the Growth Ponzi Scheme. But the financing of a new stadium for the Atlanta Braves was particularly emphasized as emblematic and symptomatic of the mistakes communities fall into as they chase growth, all the while falling further and further into the death spiral of debt described as the norm for the 3rd generation of suburban growth in Strong Towns' Curbside Chat.

I want to make some comparisons between the SunTrust Park development and my own home town’s “Hail Mary, Mega-Project, Silver Bullet”: the new MGM Springfield resort casino. My goal is to elicit responses from readers regarding these comparisons so as to flesh out whether, in truth, the general thumbs down Strong Towns advocates tend to give mega-projects are actually due to the qualities, characteristics, and criticisms which the developments themselves foster. Or maybe if the actual process is the reverse: maybe there is an instinctual aversion to silver bullet projects, and the rationales follow. I say that because when comparing these two projects, the Braves stadium and MGM Springfield, in every aspect—the process, the funding, the fiscal impact, the location, the use of infrastructure, and the impacts on various segments of the community—they are seemingly inverses of each other.

The Braves stadium process was, according to the posts on Strong Towns, rapid, undemocratic, and even secretive. By contrast, the process for selecting a location and a developer for a casino in the western region of Massachusetts was first written, voted on, and approved by both houses of the Massachusetts legislature and signed by the governor. The mayor of Springfield had to opt in to the process on behalf of his constituents, the negotiated plan had to be approved by local voters, and then the entire process was subject to an up or down statewide referendum.

Where the Atlanta Braves required that county government bond for hundreds of millions of dollars to build their stadium, MGM has committed, per the terms of its license, to pay to the city, surrounding cities and towns, and the state tens of millions of dollars yearly after having funded the construction of the entire $960 million project privately.

A bike-share station in Springfield. MGM funded improvements to bicycle infrastructure.

A bike-share station in Springfield. MGM funded improvements to bicycle infrastructure.

SunTrust stadium was built in a suburban location and required not just new infrastructure, but infrastructure for its exclusive use paid for by Cobb County. Meanwhile, MGM built its resort in the urban core of the region, which had dozens of buildings lost to or damaged by an F-4 tornado just a few years earlier; there was infrastructure in the ground and underdeveloped land all around. What improvements, modernizations, and expansions were needed were funded by MGM and included upgrades to the surrounding area. MGM has also funded all new sidewalks and bicycle infrastructure throughout the downtown.

The debt burden of the new baseball park in Cobb County was blamed in part for the underfunding and closure of parks and libraries, for cutbacks in police, and for a lack of support for public transit. MGM has taken over the maintenance of one existing park and, in partnership with the city, paid for improvements to two others. MGM is footing the bill for a free downtown “Loop” shuttle connecting to the city’s brand new intermodal transit station as well as committing half a million dollars a year to the operations of Union Station. The city is using funds from MGM to expand police presence downtown and in the South End, including two new substations and two 24-hour kiosks.

Not much was made of the overall design of SunTrust Park in the series, but it is clear that the stadium does very little to connect to (or perhaps to create!) nearby neighborhoods. Conversely, not only was the MGM plan designed to connect to all of the surrounding areas—the South End, Main Street, Court Square—but by taking over the management of the Mass Mutual Center arena, Symphony Hall, and CityStage, MGM formally expands its presence throughout the downtown.

The streets of downtown Springfield, MA.

One writer urges Cobb County to see the potential of Marietta to create and expand a traditional, walkable area, which could give Cobb County its own identity rather than just being a suburb of Atlanta. By New England standards, Western Massachusetts has always been too far from either New York City or Boston to be considered a suburb of either; for good or for ill, we have always had a separate identity, but having at the heart of the region an urban core which people of the entire region would embrace as a center was only a reality of yesteryear… until now.

To conclude, please allow me an analogy. Let's say a teenager asks Mom and Dad for permission to attend a party and they reply: “No. We don’t want you at Billy’s house. We don’t think he’s a very good influence on you.” And the teen responds that not only is the party not at Billy’s house, but Billy isn’t even invited. If, then, the parents then come up with a different reason to withhold permission… then it was never really about Billy. Maybe they’re still justified in their decision, but the Billy thing was just cover.

MGM is a silver bullet project if ever there was one, but I find it hard to find a single criticism of the Cobb County example which applies to it. Are all corporate enterprises from Trader Joe’s to Walmart extractive? Of course they are. Whether it’s Two Buck Chuck or Salad Shooters, the point is to get the consumer’s money into the hand of investors while spending as little as possible in the local community to do so. Owners of Major League Baseball franchises and shareholders of MGM are no different. Is Strong Towns swearing off the corporate model entirely? We’ve got a handful headquartered here trying to extract as much as possible from other communities. It’d be pretty painful if we “unilaterally disarmed” if you take my meaning.

To sum up, two megaprojects: The first done in secret, paid for by public money, in the suburbs, requiring new infrastructure, and having a negative impact on quality of life services. The other, the result of a public process, privately funded, within the urban core, obligated to make payments to local government, renovating but not expanding the coverage of the infrastructure network, and funding quality of life services. Do the differences matter, or do you really just not trust your kid at a party?

(All photos by Steven Shultis.)

About the Author

Steven Shultis is a founding member of Strong Towns who lives in an older neighborhood in Springfield, MA. He discusses his own experience raising a family in a less affluent neighborhood on his blog. Steve walks the walk.