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Palmer, Mass. - For more than 15 years, people here have confronted the prospect of a resort casino in their midst.
In polls and in a nonbinding referendum, they've supported the notion. But now, on the verge of a Nov. 5 vote on Mohegan Sun's plan for a $1 billion casino-water park development, few are eager to predict the outcome.
It's no longer about a notion, they say. This referendum's binding.
If the pro-casino "Vote Yes for Palmer" forces out-poll their "CasiNO" counterparts, Mohegan Sun and its partners will continue to pursue the western Massachusetts casino license Bay State gaming regulators are expected to award in the spring.
If project opponents prevail, Mohegan Sun can close its Main Street office and get out of town.
"We've done two or three polls out there in the past and every one showed overwhelming support for hosting a casino in Palmer," Clyde Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said last week. "But we've seen over and over that even when polls show large margins in favor of casinos, the actual votes are a lot closer. Opponents are often more motivated (than proponents) to come out and actually vote."
So while polls conducted in Palmer in 2008, 2009 and 2010 revealed growing support for a casino - percentages in favor were 55, 60 and 64 percent, respectively - Barrow is banking on an Election Day nail-biter.
"I think it will be decided by 1 or 2 percent," he said. "Right now, the polls in the past indicate it should pass."
Paul Burns, one of two town councilors who have come out in support of the Mohegan Sun Massachusetts project, believes the town's long-running consideration of a casino is another reason the vote's unlikely to be lopsided.
"Palmer has studied it more than any other community," Burns said. "I wouldn't be upset with a tight margin - it would just be a sign that people have done their homework. When you have an extremely informed electorate, they're not going to be easily swayed.
"Don't look for an Everett margin here," he said, referring to a June referendum in the Greater Boston city of Everett, where more than 86 percent of voters approved Wynn Resorts' casino proposal. "In Everett, they didn't have time to study it."
While he'd be happy with a narrow victory, Burns said he thinks Palmer voters will approve the Mohegan Sun Massachusetts proposal by a margin of 8 to 10 percentage points. He predicted a turnout of 32 percent to 40 percent, which he said would be "huge" for a local election. No offices are up for election. Ballots will pose only the casino question.
Members of Quaboag Valley Against Casinos, the leading anti-casino group operating in Palmer, say they've been gaining momentum. They acknowledge, too, that they're fighting an uphill battle.
"We're a silent majority," said Iris Cardin, the group's co-president. "We're coming out now. There are more anti-casino people than in the past. ... No one expected Hard Rock to be defeated."
Cardin's underdog opposition might have gotten a boost, at least psychologically, from a September referendum in West Springfield, where voters shot down a Hard Rock International casino proposal by a 55-45 margin. That outcome narrowed the field vying for the western Massachusetts casino license to two: Mohegan Sun Massachusetts and MGM Resorts International, which won a July referendum on its Springfield project with nearly 58 percent of the vote.
"I've lived here all my life," the 67-year-old Cardin said. "We're a family-oriented town. Why would we want a casino to ruin it?"
Mike Eagan, a spokesman for Cardin's group, said casino opponents have been making inroads.
"I think we're doing well," he said on a recent Saturday, picketing at the busy intersection of Thorndike and Main streets. "The more you know about a casino, the more unlikely it is that you're going to want one in your community."
Economic benefits, social costs
While casino opponents typically focus on the quality-of-life issues associated with gambling - addiction, crime, traffic and casinos' effects on surrounding small businesses - casino operators tout the revenue and jobs they generate. Governments tend to find the promise of economic benefits irresistible.
Mohegan Sun's "host community agreement" with Palmer, for example, seemed to more than satisfy town officials. The pact calls for the casino to dole out nearly $3 million in upfront payments, as well as annual payments of $15.2 million plus 0.25 percent of the casino's first $400 million in gaming revenue and 2 percent of the revenue beyond $400 million.
Based on Mohegan Sun's projections, total casino revenue for Palmer would top $18 million in the casino's first year of operation.
In addition, the agreement calls for Mohegan Sun to foot the bill for more than $41 million worth of infrastructure improvements to water and sewer systems, the Exit 8 interchange of the Massachusetts Turnpike and local roadways.
The town has an annual budget of about $33 million, of which $15.3 million is derived from local property taxes, according to Charlie Blanchard, the town manager.
After tapping the projected casino windfall to cover "mitigation" costs - expenses incurred because of the casino's impact on services such as police and fire protection - the town still would have more than $12 million a year at its disposal to fund improvements and lower property taxes, Blanchard has calculated.
If the Town Council raised the budget of each town department, including schools, by 15 percent, reduced sewer fees by 10 percent, paid for the town's new police station, funded a bridge repair program and put $1 million a year into the town's "Stabilization Fund," it could still cut property taxes by more than 40 percent, the town manager wrote in an op-ed piece last month.
"There may be reasons why people would decide not to vote in favor of having a casino in Palmer," Blanchard wrote, "… but the host community agreement and the fiscal improvement it would bring should not be one of them."
Mitchell Etess, chief executive officer of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which operates Mohegan Sun in Uncasville and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., said the project's economic impact on the town would be "truly transformative."
He said he's "very confident" that Palmer will vote in favor of the "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity the project represents. "I don't know of anything that could be built anywhere that could have so much beneficial impact on a community," he said. "And we've made every effort to minimize the (negative) impact."
If signs voted
The town's casino supporters, many of whom are members of Citizens for Jobs and Growth in Palmer, have been monitoring the casino-approval process for years. The group formed in the spring of 2010 and has been working in conjunction with Mohegan Sun's own "Vote Yes for Palmer" campaign since the signing of the host community agreement.
"We're happy to carry their signs," Jennifer Baruffaldi, the citizens group's spokeswoman, said.
If signs could vote, the referendum outcome would seem assured. In recent weeks, pro-casino placards planted on residential lawns and in merchants' windows have overwhelmingly outnumbered those placed by casino opponents.
Both sides also have taken to Facebook and the radio airwaves, staged public rallies and courted news coverage. Quaboag Valley Against Casinos hosted an appearance this month by former southeastern Connecticut congressman Robert Steele, whose book, "The Curse: Big Time Gambling's Seduction of Small Town New England," takes a dim view of gaming's impact.
Cardin, the anti-casino group's co-president, said Steele warned that a Palmer casino would make it difficult for small businesses in the surrounding area to survive.
It might be hard to dispute, however, that the Mohegan Sun Massachusetts project is spurring ancillary development right next door. Northeast Realty, which owns the property leased by Mohegan Sun, also controls adjacent parcels totaling another 150 acres on which it plans to develop restaurants, retail space, hotels and offices requiring $150 million worth of investment.
The development is going forward regardless of whether the Mohegan Sun Massachusetts project materializes, according to Northeast's manager, Leon Dragone.
Those on both sides of the referendum question might agree that the Nov. 5 vote is strictly about Palmer's willingness to host Mohegan Sun Massachusetts.
"It has absolutely nothing to do with West Springfield or Springfield," said Etess, the MTGA executive, who declined to comment on reports that West Springfield activists who opposed the casino project there have joined the pro-casino camp in Palmer. Presumably, such activists would prefer a casino to be built in Palmer rather than Springfield.
If Mohegan Sun Massachusetts clears the referendum hurdle, the project's proponents can be expected to concentrate on comparing it - favorably - to MGM Resorts' Springfield proposal. They undoubtedly would highlight the Mohegan Sun project's water park component and the way the project partners sailed through the gaming commission's background checks, earning "suitable" designations.
The suitability process snagged the Suffolk Downs casino plan in East Boston, prompting the license applicants to drop Caesars Entertainment from the project and raising questions about whether other international operators, including MGM Resorts, would have trouble passing muster with the commission.
Casino opponents in Palmer aren't going to disappear if they lose the referendum vote. Many, including Cardin, the Quaboag Valley Against Casinos co-president, are also involved in an effort to repeal the 2011 law that authorized casinos in Massachusetts. The citizen's group Repeal the Casino Deal is hoping to have a referendum question placed on statewide ballots in the November 2014 election.
Key dates in the history of the Mohegan Sun Massachusetts project:
Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority signs development agreement with Northeast Realty, owner of 152-acre site in rural Palmer.
Mohegan Tribe announces it has signed a 99-year lease on the property, located off Exit 8 of the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Mohegan Sun opens storefront office on Palmer's Main Street, touting a more than $1 billion project.
NOV. 22, 2011
Gov. Deval Patrick signs "An Act Establishing Expanded Gaming in the Commonwealth," authorizing three resort casinos and one slots parlor.
JAN. 14, 2013
Mohegan Sun files Phase 1 application for the sole western Massachusetts casino license, announcing partnership with Brigade Capital Management. Scaled-back plan calls for $600 million resort casino with hotel, spa, retail shops, restaurants and an entertainment venue.
MAY 17, 2013
Mohegan Sun announces it's adding a 300,000-square-foot retail component, pushing project's price tag to nearly $800 million.
JUNE 7, 2013
Mohegan Sun announces addition of indoor-outdoor aquatic park and a second hotel, upping total investment in the project to nearly $1 billion.
AUG. 29, 2013
MTGA's Mitchell Etess and Palmer Town Manager Charlie Blanchard sign "host community agreement" in which Mohegan Sun guarantees the town nearly $3 million upfront and fixed annual payments of $15.2 million plus a percentage of gaming revenue.
OCT. 3, 2013
Following background checks, Massachusetts Gaming Commission deems Mohegan Sun partners "suitable" to proceed with their plan.
NOV. 5, 2013
Palmer residents vote whether to approve the project.
JUST THE FACTS
WHAT: Mohegan Sun Massachusetts, a resort casino with 260,000 square feet of gaming space for 3,000 slot machines and 80 table games, a 70,000-square-foot water park, two hotels and 300,000 square feet of shops, restaurants and entertainment.
WHERE: Palmer, Exit 8 of Interstate 90 (Massachusetts Turnpike)
PARTNERS: Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, Brigade Capital Management (financial), Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (architects), Finard Properties (developer, retail component, water park)
INVESTMENT: $1 billion