Mohegan - They trod the Uncas Mile. And they liked what they saw.
"It was something that had to be done at some point," Don Blais Jr., a town councilor from Palmer, Mass., said Saturday after visiting Mohegan Sun, the Uncasville casino the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority hopes to duplicate - on a smaller scale - in western Massachusetts.
"I'm glad we did it."
Blais, five other councilors, and Town Manager Charlie Blanchard toured the casino's behind-the-scenes operations for nearly two hours and lunched privately with Mohegan Sun officials before returning to Palmer via back roads, a trip Blais said took about two hours.
The Mohegans optioned property in Palmer years ago, foreseeing a day when the casino-free Bay State would expand legalized gambling. That day came late last year when Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law a bill authorizing three resort casinos, including one in western Massachusetts, and one slots-only facility.
Saturday's tour, led by Paul Brody, the Mohegan gaming authority's vice president of development, provided the group with glimpses of the casino's hotel rooms, including one of the executive suites reserved for high rollers, and the back-of-house kitchen operation accessed via the Uncas Mile, the wide corridor that stretches the length of the facility, unseen to the public.
"I was impressed," Phil Hebert, the Palmer council's president, said. "We got to see behind-the-scenes stuff a customer wouldn't ordinarily see. We saw how they take care of their customers, but I was most impressed with how they value their workers. That was the biggest thing."
Executive Chef Richard Doucette said the casino has to be prepared to feed tens of thousands of people a day, including employees who dine for free in the back-of-house Uncas Grill.
"They don't have to do that," Hebert observed. "They really care about their workers. I got that feeling from the ones I stopped to talk to. They didn't seem coached."
Blanchard said he, too, was particularly impressed with Mohegan Sun's apparent concern for the welfare of its employees as well as with the overall size of the facility. He noted that the legislation authorizing Massachusetts' casinos calls for casino operators to invest at least $500 million in their projects, a sum that would result in facilities much smaller than Mohegan Sun.
Well before the legislation was written, the Mohegan authority proposed a $600 million facility on 152 acres off Exit 8 of Interstate 90, the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Mohegan Sun Palmer would create thousands of badly needed jobs, Blanchard said.
Abu Hoque, the Sun's vice president of hotel operations, told the Palmer visitors the casino's 1,200-room hotel checks in more than 1,000 customers a day and checks out as many. He described the hotel-room security system in which sensors detect whether guests are in their room, eliminating the need to hang out "Do Not Disturb" signs. Guests can also push the system's buttons to indicate whether they want service.
Despite their positive reactions to the tour, the Palmer councilors reached Saturday night remained noncommittal about the Mohegan authority's Palmer proposal, pending the release of more specifics.
"I have to look at any business that comes here," Hebert, the council president, said. "As a council, our job is to make sure everything is addressed - traffic, crime, social ills. We need growth in this town. On the other hand, we have a lot of old factories and there's other kinds of economic development. We can't bank on a casino."
Councilor Blais said he's still "open to either side" of the casino debate.
"I've had some reservations," he said. "I'm concerned about some key issues, including traffic and the water supply, and I know that's being worked on. I want to hear more of what they have to say about it."
Blanchard, the town manager, said he, the town attorney and consultants hired by the town are negotiating a "host community agreement" with the Mohegan authority, a required step in the license-application process, as is a binding referendum in which townspeople would have to approve any casino project.
Paul Burns, another councilor who participated in the tour, said it confirmed what he already knew about Mohegan Sun - that it is a "well-run operation" whose employees are satisfied. But, he said, "We didn't address any contentious topics," namely the Mohegans' refusal to make an early payment of the nonrefundable $400,000 fee the state requires of all applicants for a casino license.
"I personally believe they're committed (to seeking a license), but my constituents always ask about it," Burns said. "I believe they could relieve a lot of people's stress by paying it. It creates an issue that doesn't need to be there."
Mohegan authority officials have said they will pay the fee when they file a final application, which is not due for some time.
By contrast, MGM Resorts International, the Las Vegas-based casino giant, paid the application fee last month when it unveiled preliminary plans for an $800 million project in Springfield, which is fewer than 20 miles west of Palmer.
MGM's proposal is one of several on the table for Springfield, at least one of which is expected to compete for the same western Massachusetts license the Mohegan authority covets.