Mohegan Sun officials tell Palmer, Mass., crowd that they're competing to win

Palmer, Mass. - Show us the plans. Show us the money.

Well, Mohegan Sun officials weren't about to do that Thursday night at a public meeting in this town, where they hope to build a miniature version of their Uncasville resort casino.

But Mitchell Etess, chief executive officer of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, did say Mohegan Sun intends to be the first casino to open in Massachusetts, which only last year authorized three resort casinos as well as a slots parlor for the state.

Already, Etess told town councilors and about 60 residents crowded into the high school library, Mohegan Sun's investment so far has exceeded $14 million for site work, engineering and pre-development planning, market studies, conceptual and architectural work, traffic studies and community outreach.

Mohegan Sun has had a presence in town for three years, having opened a downtown storefront office in 2009.

"I am confident that this $14 million investment places our Palmer proposal well ahead of our competitors in western Massachusetts," Etess said, adding later, "It's a significant investment for us so far for a project we strongly believe in, and we intend to compete to win."

Residents, who had submitted questions, some of which council President Paul Burns read aloud, had their doubts.

"Mr. Etess, (gambling commission) Chairman (Stephen) Crosby has stated it's time for developers to 'put their cards on the table' as well as prove their ability to finance a casino - neither of which you have done," one resident asked. "Why not?"

Etess, who was joined by Paul Brody, the Mohegan authority's vice president of development, said the licensing process is highly competitive and that certain information has to be kept confidential.

"We're negotiating with prospective investors, and for quite obvious reasons that cannot be done in public," he said. "We will be responsive directly to the commission and only to the commission on matters of financial qualifications."

Councilor Blake LaMothe pressed the point, saying that after maintaining a presence in town for three years and investing millions, "there's no plans?"

"We're going to be very cautious about what we say," Etess responded.

"People are concerned about the money, that it's not in place," LaMothe said at another point. "Can you say that there's not a partner in place?"

"I can't say that," Etess said.

Brody said the Massachusetts gaming bill requires that those who bid for the one available license in western Massachusetts commit to a $500 million project. The application fee is another $50 million. He said Mohegan Sun would take on debt to finance about 70 percent of the total and join with a partner to provide the remaining 30 percent - $165 million - in equity.

Mohegan Sun officials have been conferring with local officials about various aspects that have to be ironed out in a "mitigation agreement" before townspeople vote on the project in a binding referendum. Palmer residents have consistently backed casino proposals in non-binding votes over the years.

At least one person at the meeting remained skeptical of Mohegan Sun's ability to win a casino license and get the job done.

"I thought Mr. Etess and Paul Brody were very eloquent, but I didn't hear all the information I was hoping to hear," Jennifer Baruffaldi, a spokeswoman for a local business group, said. "I just hope they will have their financial partner in place when the commission requests it and that they're ready to compete. Palmer needs the jobs."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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