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Arts groups wage effort to ease impact of new venues

A performance of “Lord of the Dance’’ at Springfield Symphony Hall was upstaged by a performance at Mohegan Sun casino. A performance of “Lord of the Dance’’ at Springfield Symphony Hall was upstaged by a performance at Mohegan Sun casino. (Stephan Shraps/Supervision Media)
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / September 28, 2011

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When Springfield Symphony Hall scheduled a performance of “Lord of the Dance’’ last May, the nonprofit theater’s managers were sure it would be a much-needed big seller.

But then Mohegan Sun casino in nearby Connecticut began selling tickets to its own “Lord of the Dance’’ performance the same week at half price. And when the troupe began stomping its Irish jigs, the Springfield hall was only half-full.

Competition like that will only increase with the possible approval of three casinos in Massachusetts. But despite that threat, many arts leaders have focused on improving the legislation now before the Senate, rather than opposing it.

Like many other groups, they believe that the legalization of casino gambling here is all but certain, and that little can be gained by waging a fruitless battle against it. The Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency, has taken no position on the bill, but has urged the nonprofit groups that receive its grants to lobby the Legislature on several individual measures that would cushion the blow for arts organizations.

Critics say casino proponents have also been able to temper criticism from the arts community and a host of other would-be opponents by loading the bill with sweeteners - including large slices of casino profits - for arts organizations, local communities, addiction prevention, and schools.

The bill before the Legislature, for instance, would set aside 2 percent of casino taxes for arts programs and restrict the size of performance halls in casinos. The House approved a bill earlier this month authorizing three casinos and one slot parlor and the Senate is expected to follow suit, with relatively minor changes, as early as next week.

“They are using this as a way to silence or mute opposition,’’ said Scott Harshbarger, a former Massachusetts attorney general who is a leading casino opponent. But he said the groups banking on these promises should worry that the terms could change once casinos get the green light.

“Are you guaranteed? What if the money doesn’t cover the costs?’’ he said. “What if they don’t fulfill the promises? What’s the remedy?’’

Casino supporters deny they are trying to silence critics, saying they have instead crafted a measure that surpasses any casino law in the country in the number of safeguards it provides for people, businesses, and communities affected by casinos.

“This is a sincere effort to try to minimize negatives,’’ said Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat and one of the bill’s chief authors.

He said leading legislators will not know how casinos will affect arts and culture until they learn more about specific proposals, including locations and venue size. But he said that the bill provides insurance with “the most aggressive program of assists’’ in the country.

The Senate on Monday passed an additional protection coveted by arts organizations, an amendment requiring casino developers to negotiate agreements with theaters setting parameters on scheduling, promotions, ticket prices, and marketing. The House bill does not include that language, meaning lawmakers will have to negotiate the differences before agreeing on a final bill to present to Governor Deval Patrick. The governor has indicated he will sign the bill.

Nonprofit theaters say they are not just battling for customers. They also face competition for performers. Not only can casinos charge less for tickets, but they can also pay performers more and sign exclusive deals that prevent them from performing within 100 miles. Casinos do not need to make a profit on entertainment because they can use the shows to draw customers for their core business, slot machines.

Arts organizations also have a broader concern with casinos - that residents will devote more of their entertainment dollars to blackjack and less to art galleries or historic sites.

Tina D’Agostino, president of the Symphony Hall in Springfield, like others in the arts community, said her efforts to lobby for protections, rather than fight casinos, are practical, given that Patrick and legislative leaders lined up support for casinos before releasing a bill in August.

“If that’s sort of the writing on the wall, then I just think we need to stand up and protect ourselves,’’ she said.

Troy Siebels, executive director of the Hanover Theatre in Worcester, said the most vulnerable venues are midsize theaters like his, the Wang Theatre in Boston, the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, the Lynn Auditorium, the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis, and Symphony Hall in Springfield. These theaters fill their seats with touring acts, including comedians and rock bands that are also a staple of casinos.

He said he already loses 15 to 20 acts every year to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, including comedian Jerry Seinfeld for two years in a row, because his theater is within 100 miles and cannot pay as much.

He said he is grateful the Legislature is preventing casinos from building theaters of between 1,000 seats and 3,500 seats, the range that would most directly compete with the nonprofits. Theater directors had been seeking even broader restrictions on venue size, but were defeated.

Siebels said he still worries about the prospect of casinos and said he does not believe the money in the bill will mollify those concerns. It might reimburse theaters for losses, but it won’t put patrons back in their seats. Theaters, he said, see themselves as important anchors for local communities which depend on their patrons to dine out in restaurants and support other downtown businesses.

“We went in and said it’s not about money for us,’’ Siebels said. “I think they thought they could sort of solve most problems with money.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.