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In limbo, Palmer, Mass., patiently waits for its casino plan to materialize

By Brian Hallenbeck

Publication: The Day

Published September 12. 2010 4:00AM
A scaled-down Mohegan Sun plan for Palmer, Mass., still calls for 3,000 slot machines, 100 table games and a 600-room hotel.
With gambling bill stalled, Mohegans still interested, but town getting frustrated

Palmer, Mass. - Many here are sold on a resort casino development as the town's salvation.

If it's Mohegan Sun that builds it, so much the better, the casino advocates say, though that's not a requirement. Somebody needs to build it, though, and the sooner the better.

With an expanded-gambling bill stalled in the legislature, Mohegan Sun and its tribal owners assured Palmer officials last month that they remain committed to pursuing a casino license for a site off Exit 8 of the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Later, addressing members of two local groups - Citizens for Jobs & Growth in Palmer and Palmer Businesses for a Palmer Casino - Mohegan Sun executives unveiled new renderings of their scaled-down project.

Amid the delay, local frustration is growing.

"With all the jobs and revenue at stake, I can't imagine that they're not going to approve the bill," Paul Burns, president of the Palmer Town Council, said last week, referring to the legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick. "At what point do we recapture what we're losing to other states? If it's Mohegan Sun, or if another operator came to Palmer, that would be good. We want this type of development here. And it isn't so much who is here, it's who can build it."

Burns acknowledged that Mohegan Sun has had "an active presence" in the town of 12,600, maintaining a Main Street storefront for more than a year.

"We're all in limbo," he said.

Northeast Group, the real estate firm that owns the 152-acre site optioned by Mohegan Sun, stepped into the void last week, announcing through the citizens group that it has hired Shook Kelley, a renowned Charlotte, N.C.-based planning firm, to "envision" the economic development opportunities a casino would create.

Northeast, headed by Leon Dragone, has options to buy an additional 360 acres in town, many of them suitable for "ancillary" casino development, said James St. Amand, a Northeast spokesman.

"We think being involved with Shook Kelley puts us in a better position once the legislation is finalized," St. Amand said. "We've had a whole list of people coming to town and kicking the tires, but everyone's waiting. We've had talk of hotels and more hotels and restaurants."

After two days in town, Shook told those who attended a public meeting last week that his firm would return with a plan in four to six months. He said a casino development would provide opportunities for the town to broaden its tax base, restore jobs and perhaps recapture its heyday as a railroad hub.

"We're all about building something other than projects," he said. "We're about building places."

Jobs creation is key

Casino proponents say Shook Kelley's involvement could be crucial to Palmer's taking advantage of a casino once it's built.

"We don't want to become another Atlantic City," said Robert Young, a landscaper who founded the business group, referring to the New Jersey casinos' reputation for failing to revitalize the area around them.

In Palmer and the surrounding Quaboag Valley area, the unemployment rate has climbed into double digits over the last year or so. Recent closings of Quaboag Transfer, a shipping company, and the Monson Developmental Center in neighboring Monson have cost hundreds of jobs.

Mohegan Sun officials have always touted the jobs-creation aspect of their proposed casino, whose original $1.2 billion price tag has been cut in half, reflecting changes in the requirements of the proposed legislation and market conditions.

The project still calls for 3,000 slot machines, 100 table games, a 600-room hotel, restaurants, retail space and an entertainment venue. It's projected that it will create up to 1,200 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs.

Jeffrey Hartmann, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Mohegan Sun, said the casino and the Mohegan Tribe that owns it are proud of the impact Mohegan Sun has had on southeastern Connecticut.

"Fifteen years ago, if you traveled down Route 32, you would not see the hotels, the shopping center with a Home Depot that are there now," Hartmann said. "The tax base has expanded in Montville. We purchase $250 million a year in goods and services in Connecticut, from Pawcatuck to Fairfield County. And for every full-time job at the casino, there's been one other job created in the community."

Opponents of casino development in western Massachusetts dispute such arguments.

"If a casino is built, there will be construction jobs, that's true, but the promise of all these permanent jobs is a myth," EmmaLadd Shepherd of Monson, co-president of Quaboag Valley Against Casinos, said. "The majority of them are part-time, with no benefits."

Shepherd said casinos are linked to a host of economic issues, including their potentially devastating effect on existing retailers, restaurants and theaters.

"Business bypasses them," she said. "We've got a town here in Massachusetts — Sturbridge — that runs on tourism. It will be totally bypassed by business going to a casino (in Palmer). We've got some really viable theater in Worcester, West Springfield, the Springfield Symphony Hall that will be hurt."

Shepherd said her group, a grassroots organization whose members live in the towns that surround Palmer, believes the impact of a Palmer casino has yet to be adequately assessed. No provisions have been made, she said, for concerns related to public safety, traffic, crime, schools, housing and the availability of water.

She said casino opponents have made some inroads with leaders in Boston, however, where Palmer's representatives in the House and Senate voted against the expanded-gambling bill and where opponents continue to press for a cost-benefit analysis of casino development.

"In western Massachusetts, we sometimes feel like we live on the dark side of the moon, but we're being heard," Shepherd said. "Obviously, we're hoping the legislature doesn't come back (to act on the stalled bill). Next year it might be a new ballgame."

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