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Recognizable Impact

Mike Mathis Has Become the Face of MGM Springfield

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A year or so ago, Mike Mathis could walk the streets of downtown Springfield in relative anonymity.

These days … well, not so much.

He said he was buttonholed recently by a business owner on Worthington Street who gave him a tutorial on the wide range of musical talent that resides in this region and advised him to exploit it. And a few days ago, he was recognized by the person working behind the counter at a car-rental agency, who asked about job opportunities — not for himself, but for family members who had left the area and were interested in coming back.

There have been many similar episodes over the past several months, and there will certainly be exponentially more for what everyone expects will be years to come.

That’s because Mathis is the face of the $800 million casino project proposed for Springfield’s South End, and, increasingly, that face is being recognized, a development he doesn’t mind at all.

Indeed, Mathis, whose business card now reads ‘president, MGM Springfield,’ likes talking with people about what could be called his project, although there is already a sizable team working on it. And more than that, he loves hearing from individuals about how this initiative could dramatically change things for the city and the region — and in positive ways.

‘Transformative’ was the word he said one state official used to describe the MGM Springfield project, and he’s not at all shy about borrowing that term.

Actually, he’s not shy about much of anything, a character trait he says is one of many necessitated by, and also honed by, life as the son of an Army officer who moved his family a number of times during his career.

“It was a wonderful childhood,” Mathis told BusinessWest, listing stops in Atlanta, Monterey, Calif., Frankfurt, Germany, and Huntsville, Ala., among many others. “The nature of moving around that often, and the whole culture of military kids and schools, is that you make friends really quickly. It forces you to be outgoing, and you need to be open to a lot of different cultures, because you’re going to experience them. So I give a lot of credit to my dad and my mom for helping me to get there in terms of my personality.”

Those qualities he listed have served him well in a career that started with a New Jersey law firm just after he earned his juris doctor at Georgetown University, but soon saw the dateline shift to Las Vegas, where he would become involved in one of the biggest projects in the industry’s history — that is, until the recession stopped it in its tracks (more on that later).

He would eventually be recruited by MGM Resorts International, where he would rise to the title of vice president of the Global Gaming Department, a position that would take him from Vegas to Macau, Japan, countless other stops, and eventually to Springfield, which, by the fall of 2012 had become ground zero in the fight for the coveted Western Mass. casino license.

MGM’s proposed casino

Mike Mathis made frequent use of the word ‘transformative’ to describe the impact MGM’s proposed casino will have on Springfield and the surrounding region.

By last fall — Nov. 4, to be exact, the day Palmer voters said ‘no’ to Mohegan Sun’s plans to build a resort casino just off turnpike exit 8 — the MGM proposal was the proverbial last plan standing.

That phrase has been used quite extensively in the press, and Mathis doesn’t like it at all. He told BusinessWest that it conveys the sense that MGM will win this license — if that’s what happens — seemingly by default.

Instead, he said, MGM will have triumphed because it had the best plan, one that prevailed over Penn National’s bid to build a gaming complex in Springfield’s North End in what became the first stage of the license competition, and one he believes is a potentially groundbreaking concept for an urban gaming facility — what the company calls the ‘inside-out casino.’

“I think this project is going to set the bar for any other opportunities that a gaming company has to develop in a downtown urban environment,” he said, making reference to this plan’s focus on melding with its surroundings and putting the emphasis on family entertainment, not gaming. “If all goes well, people will look back at what we did in Springfield as the standard.”

For this issue and its focus on the casino era, BusinessWest talked at length with Mathis about everything from his career in this industry to the state of MGM’s proposal to the nagging presence of a referendum initiative that could undo everything that’s transpired since the gaming legislation was passed in the fall of 2011.

And in keeping with his character, he wasn’t shy about speaking his mind.

In the Background

Mathis remembers that it was a dark February day, one when the mercury barely touched 20 degrees. Those were the conditions when he and his wife, Lisa, whom he met while both were pursuing law degrees at Georgetown, boarded a plane at New York’s JFK airport to take up a fellow classmate’s advice to explore job opportunities in Las Vegas.

“It was 75 and perfect when we landed,” he said with a broad smile, adding that the weather was just one of many factors that would entice the couple to pack up and move roughly 2,500 miles west.

The bigger factor was that Las Vegas was at what would later be identified as the early stages of a massive building boom, one that this entrepreneurial couple wanted to be a part of.

MGM’s planned ‘inside-out’ casino

Mike Mathis says MGM’s planned ‘inside-out’ casino could set the standard when it comes to urban gaming facilities.

Backing up a bit, Mathis said his childhood spent moving from base to base, and the character traits it generated, definitely had an impact on his eventual career track and made it much easier to pick up and move across the country.

“My upbringing in a military family helps define my in a lot of ways,” he explained. “It’s not surprising to me that I’ve been attracted to hospitality and international development, because I’m very comfortable traveling, and I like experiencing new environments.”

He saw many environments in his youth, starting with the desert in Arizona, where he was born. Over the next decade and a half, his father’s work would take the family to the Southeast — Atlanta and Huntsville — and then to the West Coast and Monterey, a somewhat lengthier stint that was perhaps his favorite.

“We were there for four years,” he recalled. “I didn’t know how great that assignment was until we moved to New Jersey for middle school and high school.”

There was also a lengthy stay at a base near Frankfurt, one that afforded the family opportunities to travel throughout Europe, experiences that made a lasting impression on the young Mathis.

“My parents have always been great about exploring our environments and surroundings,” he said. “This was a working-class family, but my parents always put a priority on traveling. And my wife and I really go out of our way to make sure our kids see the world.”

Mathis probably couldn’t have imagined just how much of the world he would eventually see when he was wrapping up his law degree at Georgetown. He did a clerkship with a firm in New Jersey and a summer internship with a large Wall Street firm, experiences that exposed him to trial work and sophisticated corporate practice, respectively.

He eventually opted to return to New Jersey and spend more time in the courts.

Meanwhile, Lisa, who was in the same class with him at Georgetown, took a job with a Wall Street firm. Their schedules didn’t allow them to spend much time together, he said, and soon there was discussion about whether she would seek opportunities in New Jersey or he would do likewise in Manhattan.

Instead, they would both go to Las Vegas.

“We both got jobs with two of the top law firms in Las Vegas, who were happy to recruit some professionals from the East Coast because they were looking to broaden their practices,” Mathis recalled, adding that, within that first year, they both represented clients in the gaming industry; he worked with Las Vegas Sands, and Lisa with Caesars. Those stints eventually led to offers for in-house positions, which they both accepted.

Mathis spent the six years working with Las Vegas Sands, which he called a great learning experience, one in which he worked on not only the Venetian and Palazzo resort casinos, but also an expansion into Macau and the process of taking the company public.

“It was a really intense period with a lot going on, and I was right in the middle of all of it as a junior lawyer,” he explained. “It was just an incredible experience.”

He later accepted an offer to join Boyd Gaming and be general counsel for its flagship development on the Las Vegas strip — Echelon Place, at the site of the historic Stardust casino. The $4 billion venture would have included four hotels, a 140,000-square-foot casino, and the 650,000-square-foot Las Vegas ExpoCenter, but construction was halted in August 2008, roughly a year after it started, just as the effects of the Great Recession, which would devastate the Las Vegas economy, were starting to be felt.

While work at the site never resumed, Mathis considered his time at Boyd another key learning experience.

“Bill Boyd, who’s a legend in this industry, was an attorney who transitioned into an operator, so he was a great role model for me,” he said. “He was a very hands-on individual, very successful, very wealthy, but famous for working every day and knowing everyone’s names at each of the properties. I really respected that, and wanted to model my career after that type of engagement with the business, and with the people. He had a big impact on my outlook.”

Mathis described the demise of Echelon Place as the low point in his career — “I had only experienced the boom” — but he stayed with the Boyd group until 2011, when he accepted a position with MGM as vice president of Global Gaming Development for MGM Hospitality.

In that capacity, he has been one of the key players in advancing MGM’s latest developments — resort casinos in Macau, Delaware, and Springfield. And late last year, that focus was narrowed when he was made president of MGM Springfield.

Solid Bet

As he talked with BusinessWest in MGM’s offices in the TD Bank building — facilities crammed with architectural renderings and an elaborate model of the Springfield proposal — Mathis made it clear that he wasn’t taking anything for granted as the race for the Western Mass. license heads for the finish line. Nor was the company doing any coasting — another word he hears often — because there is no competition left.

“We’ve continued to work as if this were a five-operator race,” he said, referring to the number of companies that were bidding for the Western Mass. license in the final days of 2012 before the attrition started. “That’s what has helped make it such a detailed project; we felt a need to nail down a lot of specifics so that we could distinguish ourselves from our competitors. And that’s pretty unique to have as complete a design and as complete a program as we had early on.

“And we’ve continued to follow the Gaming Commission process, which is a very specific process,” he continued. “It requires engagement with surrounding communities, which has been ongoing, and it requires engagement with different entertainment venues. We’ve had a series of hearings in front of the Gaming Commission, and we passed suitability earlier in the year. We continue to keep our heads down and work and not take anything for granted.

“We’re at the point now where, from a development-operations standpoint, we can’t be arrogant about it, but we have to assume that we’re going to win the license,” he went on. “And we need to be ready to implement the project on day one.”

Overall, there are many aspects to the work being undertaken by the company at this juncture, roughly three months before the five-member Mass. Gaming Commission (MGC) is expected to decide the fate of the Western Mass. license.

There are some design elements to be finalized, he explained, as well as work to line up vendors (see story, page 19), secure tenants for the large retail component of the gaming complex, and ensure that a trained workforce will be in place when the doors open — sometime in 2017, if all goes according to plan.

But there are other, perhaps less obvious matters to contend with, he went on, using the broad term ‘education’ to categorize them.

Elaborating, he said that the gaming industry has been entrenched in Las Vegas and Macau for decades. Elected officials and the public at large are familiar with the concept and understand the business and what it brings to a community.

But in Massachusetts, it’s all foreign territory.

“And because of that, we need a lot of engagement at the local level,” he explained. “I feel the need to continually educate people not only in Springfield but across Western Mass., and make sure that everyone understands that this is a project that we think benefits not only the host community, but the region as well.

“This is unique for me personally,” he went on. “Prior to MGM, I just developed projects in Las Vegas, and it’s an entirely different process there.”

Locally, the process has a new and quite intriguing wildccard — an effort to repeal the state’s gaming legislation via a statewide referendum that would appear on this November’s election ballot. State Attorney General Martha Coakley ruled that the petition to put the matter on the ballot was unconstitutional because it would “impair the implied contracts between the [gaming] commission and gaming license applicants” and illegally “take” those rights without compensation.

Backers of the referendum then took their case to the state Supreme Judicial Court, which is expected to rule on the matter this summer, a few months after the Gaming Commission is likely to have awarded licenses for Western Mass. and the Boston area.

MGM has joined a coalition, which also includes other gaming companies, host communities, and backers of casino gambling, that was created to fight the repeal effort, which Mathis said could have a “chilling effect” on his company’s plans for a few months until the matter is decided.

“If we’re fortunate enough to win the license in May, to have the potential repeal hanging over our heads as an industry makes it difficult to do certain things,” he said, listing as examples some of the early financial commitments related to construction and other capital-intensive expenditures. “And that’s unfortunate; there will be a two-month window where we’re going to have to watch and see what the court does. It’s certainly not the way you want to kick off the project.”

For the immediate future, the company will be an interested spectator as Penn National Gaming, the recently announced winner of the contest for the state’s lone slots parlor license, decides how it will proceed with the repeal matter looming.

“The Commonwealth has invited our industry into this jurisdiction, and we’ve made a substantial investment in terms of time and money,” Mathis said. “We have other lines of business, and MGM will survive if this is repealed, but I think about the host community and all the potential that we promised them with this project, all the employment. These host communities will be impacted as much as anyone if this whole process is overturned.”

Odds Are

While monitoring the repeal effort and awaiting what everyone expects will be the green light from the Gaming Commission, the MGM team, and Mathis in particular, continue a dialogue with Springfield officials about the project, while also talking with and listening to area residents about this huge endeavor.

“What’s really great about this opportunity, and fairly unique because of the statute, is how much of a partner the city is through the host-community agreement,” he explained. “We always want to stay on the same page about all the things that we’re working on, and with other things that are happening in the city as well.”

And there are many initiatives on the drawing board or already underway, he went on, which makes the casino project even more intriguing.

“Even before we arrived in Springfield, [Chief Development Officer] Kevin Kennedy and the Economic Development office had been doing some really great things to make sure that Springfield continues to grow and improve its economic foundation,” he told BusinessWest. “There were a lot of great things happening in Springfield before we came on board, and we’re catalysts for future growth.

“Whether it’s Union Station or the UMass satellite campus moving in, I think Springfield is on the verge of a renaissance,” he went on. “And we’re excited to anchor that.”

And while there are a number of people involved with the MGM Springfield project, including several working in the downtown Springfield office, Mathis is the point person.

That’s why he’s far less anonymous than he was a year ago, and also why he’s hearing, and answering, a wide variety of questions — in the press, on the street, in the line at the breakfast buffet at the Sheraton, and, yes, at the counter at the car-rental agency.

And as might be expected (or not, as the case may be), a good deal of these queries have to do with employment opportunities — this project is expected to create 2,000 construction jobs and nearly 3,000 permanent jobs — and that makes Mathis feel even better about it.

“It’s really about jobs, and I wasn’t prepared for that,” he explained. “I’m sort of humbled by the idea that I walk around and people see the opportunity for a career in me; that’s a tremendous responsibility.

“People are really focused on when we’re going to open, when we’re going to start hiring, and what’s required for hiring,” he went on. “There’s not a day that goes by where I’m not approached in a very respectful way by citizens wanting to know about those opportunities. I’ll have an encounter with someone where it’s not about them getting a job, but about their brother, who’s an ironworker, or it’s about their daughter, who’s graduating next year, and they want to keep her home and interested in a career here.”

This return-to-Springfield aspect to this project is one of the more surprising, and also inspirational, story notes to date, said Mathis, and one of the many reasons why he makes use of that term ‘transformative,’ which he attributes to Jim Rooney, head of the Mass. Convention Center Authority, while noting that others have used it as well.

“I find it ironic that Springfield and Western Mass. are in the middle of the Knowledge Corridor, and it’s very difficult to keep that talent in state,” he went on.

“I think we have the ability to give some of the local talented young people a career opportunity and give them a reason to stay, and that will have a spin-off impact on other industries that will be able to tap into that growing labor pool.”

A Winning Hand?

When he and Lisa moved to Vegas, Mathis said, it was with the expectation that it would be a relatively short stay, like many of those stops from his youth.

But it lasted more than a dozen years, and thus provided ample evidence of how it’s difficult to forecast how one’s career path, or life in general, will unfold. So he’s not making any predictions about how long this assignment in Springfield might last.

What he does know, though, is that, if this project proceeds as planned, anonymity will become increasingly elusive.

That’s what happens when you’re the face of something transformative.


George O’Brien can be reached at obrien@businesswest.com


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