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Palmer, Mass. - It's rural versus urban; the local guys who've been running a casino in the region for more than 15 years against the city slickers who have to fly in from places like St. Louis and Las Vegas just to survey the scene.
That's how Mitchell Etess, the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority's chief executive officer, drew the battle lines Wednesday in the budding competition for a western Massachusetts casino license. Addressing the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce at a vocational high school here, he made it clear which of the competitors he believes is best equipped to rescue the economy of a chunk of the Bay State that includes Springfield and Worcester and a lot of rural in between.
"We're here; we've been here," said Etess, whose authority operates Mohegan Sun in rural southeastern Connecticut and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Pennsylvania. "We know what New Englanders want in a casino and we know how to give it to them."
After all, Etess said, Mohegan Sun and "Brand X down the road," which would be Foxwoods Resort Casino, are the standard-bearers of the "rural destination model" for casinos. It's that model the Mohegan authority would duplicate on a relatively small scale in Palmer if it wins the one casino license that the Massachusetts Gaming Commission is expected to award for western Massachusetts.
So far, the authority's competition is entirely centered in Springfield, the state's third-largest city, where as many as four suitors, all of them major gaming players, have indicated they will pursue downtown projects. One, Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International, already has provided details of its $800 million plan, has paid a $400,000 application fee and on Tuesday, opened an office in downtown Springfield.
Ameristar Casinos, also based in Las Vegas, is filing details of its Springfield proposal this week, according to a company official who attended Wednesday's event. Penn National of Wyomissing, Pa., and Hard Rock International of Orlando, Fla., also have expressed interest in Springfield.
"Most people in New England are unfamiliar with urban casinos," Etess said. "If you ask them what a casino looks like in Detroit or Gary, Indiana, they don't know. Mohegan Sun has changed the way people think of casinos. ... What people (in the industry) have come to understand is that what people are going to like in New England is rural."
When one of the dozens of small business owners in the audience asked about the public's perception that the "fix is in" for Springfield, Etess said he found that hard to believe. He noted that the state approved expanded gambling with the creation of jobs and economic development in mind and said a Palmer casino would be in the best position to deliver on that promise.
"The Palmer site will drive the most revenue to the entire western Massachusetts region," Etess said.
Another business owner asked how the Mohegan authority could be pursuing a casino in Massachusetts at the same time it's laying off workers at Mohegan Sun.
Etess said the more than 300 layoffs announced Sept. 27 should not raise a "red flag" in regard to the viability of gaming in the Bay State. He said the authority has to "right-size" the workforce at each of its properties and that the economy in Connecticut, which provides most of Mohegan Sun's business, is "worse" than it is elsewhere.
The authority's commitment to the Palmer project, starting with its 2008 leasing of a 152-acre site off Exit 8 on the Massachusetts Turnpike, followed by its opening of a downtown Palmer office in 2009, has never wavered, he said.
That long-standing commitment is part of the reason why the authority has found it unnecessary to pay the $400,000 license-application fee before it's due next year, Etess said.
"If I had been in one community and moved to another community, I'd probably pay the fee to show my commitment," he said, a reference to MGM Resorts, which has abandoned a casino project it had proposed earlier this year in Brimfield, a small town adjacent to Palmer, before unveiling its Springfield plan in August. The company deemed the Brimfield site unsuitable.