Casino backers tout promise of new jobs for Massachusetts

Boston - Offering testimony that had a familiar ring to it, pro-casino forces, including developers, gaming operators, organized labor and state and municipal officials, dominated the discourse Wednesday during a State House hearing on expanded-gambling proposals.

Speakers who addressed the Massachusetts legislature's Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies invariably cited the need for jobs that they said casinos would create. Mitchell Etess, chief executive officer of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which operates Mohegan Sun in Uncasville and seeks to build a smaller version of it in Palmer, Mass., was no exception.

Etess said the authority's proposed casino would provide 1,200 construction jobs while it was being built and between 2,500 and 3,000 permanent jobs once it was operating.

"It's very much the same proposal that we described in 2009," he said.

The MTGA, which also owns Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, a harness-racing track and casino in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., has an option on 152 acres off Exit 8 of the Massachusetts Turnpike in Palmer. It has maintained a presence in the western Massachusetts town for two years, seemingly giving it a leg up on competitors who may also bid for a casino license if the legislature authorizes expanded gambling.

A bill that would have allowed three resort casinos in the state as well as slot machines at two existing racetracks stalled a year ago when Gov. Deval Patrick, a slots opponent, refused to sign the measure into law. House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who backs racetrack slots, and the governor are expected to have to find common ground this year before a bill can pass.

"A year ago I said it was a sure thing," Paul Burns, a Palmer town councilor and staunch advocate of a Palmer casino, said after testifying Wednesday. "This year it's a crapshoot. There are too many players who can throw a monkey wrench into it."

Burns told the committee it's important to focus on economic development in an area where there's a demonstrated need for it, namely Palmer. He said unemployment in the town and in all of Hampden County stood at 10.4 percent in March, more than 2 points higher than in the rest of the state.

A proposal that could compete with Mohegan Sun for a casino license in western Massachusetts has emerged in recent months. Joseph Lashinger, managing member of Paper City Development Co. LLC, which controls the Wyckoff Country Club property in Holyoke, told the committee his company wants to develop a casino with a 350-room hotel, an entertainment venue, a spa, restaurants and retail shops. Lashinger, who served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives before pursuing a career as a gaming-industry lobbyist, said he developed, with his own private capital, a Chester, Pa., casino that was acquired by Harrah's Entertainment.

Lashinger said the state should limit the capital investment in a western Massachusetts casino to $400 million with a $50 million licensing fee. Last year's bill called for a $600 million investment.

Two municipal officials from the Boston area voiced support for casino development. Kimberley Driscoll, mayor of Salem, said that while her town has no interest in hosting a casino, it would benefit from one in Boston, which is 14 miles away. Jay Ash, the city manager in Chelsea, an urban suburb of Boston, said the debate over casinos should have taken place 25 years ago.

"It's here," Ash said, referring to all forms of expanded gambling, legal and otherwise. "We have the social costs." He said it's been demonstrated that no other industry can generate the numbers of jobs that casinos can.

Owners of the Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston and Revere also testified in favor of casino legislation, having entered into an agreement with Caesars Entertainment Corp. to develop a casino at the racetrack.

Among the casino opponents who testified was John Riberio, founder of Neighbors of Suffolk Downs, which supports a bill calling for a cost-benefit analysis of expanded gambling. The group points out that Connecticut's casinos, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, have grappled with declining revenues, with the former seeking to restructure debt following a default and the latter seeking to refinance debt.

Opponents also urged the committee to consider the impact Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun have had on such host communities as Ledyard and Norwich. Others warned that expanded gambling is typically accompanied by increases in alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, bankruptcy and embezzlement.

"We in Massachusetts must understand what is in store for us before we make such an intractable change to the culture and character of this great state," Riberio said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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