Cover Story

Casinos — and a Town — Are in Limbo

Cover October 11, 2010

Cover October 11, 2010

Town Council President Paul Burns says a proposed $1 billion casino casts a big shadow over the town of Palmer, a very big shadow. And this makes the current stalemate on the issue of gaming on Beacon Hill quite frustrating to those who support the initiative and the jobs and tax revenue it will generate. In some respects, the Palmer casino is closer to reality than ever, but in others, resolution of the matter still seems far off amid questions about who will be leading the state come January and whether he can broker a Palmer-friendly casino deal. Ultimately, many believe casinos are simply too big to fail in the Bay State.

“Hopeful frustration.”
That’s the phrase Paul Burns summoned, after a few moments of careful consideration, to describe his mindset these days, a few months after gaming legislation that seemed destined to pass in Boston fell by the wayside instead.
Failure on the part of the governor and Legislature to seal a deal on casinos has left gaming — and the town of Palmer, which Burns serves as town councilor — in a serious state of limbo, one where Mohegan Sun’s plans to build a $1 billion resort casino on a hillside parcel just off the Mass. Turnpike are agonizingly close to becoming reality, yet, in some ways, no closer than they were years ago.
That’s where the frustration comes in.
As for ‘hopeful,’ well, Burns, like many others in this town who support gaming, believes that casinos are essentially too big to fail in the Bay State, and that common sense dictates that if several casinos are approved — or even one — Palmer is the state’s first, best choice.
“It was very frustrating to watch the process — I couldn’t understand why the three groups couldn’t get together on this,” said Burns, noting that he’s become an unofficial spokesperson for supporters of a casino, although he stressed repeatedly that he speaks for himself, not the nine-member Town Council as a whole. “But at the end of the day, I think common sense will prevail and this will get done.”
Whether casinos are indeed too big to fail is still a matter for debate, but there’s no debating that the proposed facility in Palmer is a nearly all-consuming matter there, where the assessor’s office estimates that a casino on the scale being planned could bring the town more than $15 million in total tax revenues annually, nearly double the amount collected now. Meanwhile, there are estimates that the casino will create more than 3,000 jobs (not to mention 1,500 temporary construction jobs) and spur more ancillary economic development, and it will certainly change the landscape of the community in just about every way that word can be defined.
“Let’s just say it casts a very big shadow,” said Burns, noting that, while things haven’t ground to a halt while the gaming issue plays itself out, much of what happens in this town business- and economic-development-wise will be impacted by whether the casino becomes reality. “I want to see a casino project, but everyone wants to see a resolution to this matter.”
These are indeed frustrating, anxious times for Palmer. It has been 14 years, by Burns’ count, since the issue of a casino was first raised here. Over the past few years, gaming bills have come increasingly closer to passage, but have never made it to fruition. In late June, things came apart in an almost maddening way, as Gov. Deval Patrick and leaders of the state House and Senate could not reconcile their differences over how many slot parlors, or ‘racinos,’ as they’re called, the state should license, scuttling legislation that most in Palmer and elsewhere thought would pass — in some form.
Now, there is optimism that a measure can be passed next year or even this fall. But there are also nagging questions, especially about who will be governor come January and what that individual’s mindset will be when it comes to gaming.
Republican candidate Charles Baker has said publicly that he supports one casino to start to see how gaming and the Commonwealth suit one another. If Baker prevails in November, and sticks to that plan, will Palmer be the chosen site?
For this issue, BusinessWest examines the mood in Palmer and the thought processes moving forward as the elephant in the room that is casino gambling grows ever larger in stature.

High-stakes Proposition
It’s called Nostalgia Day.
That’s the name given to the annual community get-together in Palmer that marked its fifth year on Sept. 18. Once staged on Main Street, the event was moved a few years ago to Legion Field behind Converse Middle School. Nostalgia Day pays homage to the community’s past, especially its status as a rail hub; this is known as the ‘Town of Seven Railroads.’ This year, the event included everything from narrated trolley rides to a Wiffle ball tournament to entertainment ranging from polka music to a tribute to Fleetwood Mac.
While taking part in all those things, attendees were also talking about the casino, said Robert Young, president of K.E.Y. Property Services and also president of something called Palmer Businesses for a Palmer Casino. “And they were letting some anger out.”
“The frustration was palpable,” said Young as he described the general mood, at least among casino backers, and they are, according to most all assessments, in the majority in this community. “The issue’s not dead; it’s not moving forward, and it’s not moving backward. It’s in limbo.”
In some ways, it’s always been in that state. Palmer passed a resolution supporting a casino within its borders several years ago, and in 2007, the proposal for Mohegan Sun’s $1 billion facility — complete with a 164,000-square-foot casino, a 600-room hotel, 12 restaurants, and 100,000 square feet of retail space — took shape.
For the past several years, casinos have been the subject of debate on Beacon Hill, with the Palmer facility always taking prominence as one of the lead proposals and essentially the Western Mass. option. Over the past few years, gaming measures have been gaining momentum as the state’s fiscal situation has worsened and the need for additional revenue has risen.
Indeed, in previous years, the players in Boston never really came close to passing a measure, but earlier this past spring, Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Therese Murray were seemingly united in their support for some form of gaming measure.
They just couldn’t agree on the final details, especially those concerning the number of racinos, and once again, the clock ran out on the legislative session.
There is some speculation that the Legislature may return to session and vote on a casino bill this fall, but most consider it more likely that the issue will play itself out again next spring and summer, when there may be a new governor and several new legislators in office.
So this leaves casino backers watching, reading, assessing, and, well, weighing the odds.
Late last month, they read about the New England Gaming Summit, staged in Mohegan, Conn., where Mohegan Sun officials reaffirmed their commitment to a project in Massachusetts — and Palmer. “When Massachusetts is ready, we will be ready,” said Mitchell Grossinger Etess, the company’s president and CEO.
They’ve also read that, while more casinos are being proposed in the states surrounding Massachusetts, and the sector suffers through the effects of the Great Recession, the gaming industry remains bullish on New England, and Mohegan Sun is still focused on the Town of Seven Railroads.
“Palmer is without question the premier site for a casino resort in the Commonwealth,” Etess told the Gaming News late last month. “More than 11 million adults are within two hours of Palmer throughout New York and New England. Its central location makes it ideal to draw significant out-of-state traffic.”
While these signs look positive for casino backers, so, too do many of the comments from those now in the Legislature — and those who wish to unseat them in the November general election, said Leon Dragone, president of the Northeast Resort Group, which owns the proposed casino property and leases it to Mohegan Sun.
“I’ve been watching the legislative contests, from Cape Cod westward,” he said, “and almost everyone running is for casinos; no one is running away from this issue.”
Meanwhile, area legislators, as well as some from outside this region, seem to favor one of the resort casinos being located in Western Mass., said Dragone, adding that such strong support is a relatively new phenomenon and another reason to remain optimistic about the prospects for a Palmer casino.

A Winning Hand?
But while many signs seems to be pointing in the right direction, there are still a number of hurdles to clear and certainly no assurances that last summer’s close call will translate into triumph when the matter comes to the Legislature again.
And this is where much of the current frustration surfaces in Palmer, said Burns, noting that, to many, the casino has become Palmer’s best hope for economic revival after a prolonged slide during which most of the town’s manufacturing plants have closed down or moved out. And there really isn’t a plan B, or at least one that’s being given any real consideration until the casino mattered is settled — somehow.
“In the back of my mind, and for the sake of the town, I have to at least be prepared to say at some point, ‘if this doesn’t happen, what’s next?’” he told BusinessWest. “If it gets to that point, then I guess we’ve failed, and after two or three years of really hard work, that’ll be tough to deal with. But hopefully, we don’t wind up at that point.
“And if it doesn’t come here, the next steps are a little less clear,” he continued. “This helps to solve a lot of economic issues in one swoop. Without something of this magnitude, you’ve got to build in much smaller pieces; you’re not going to have someone come in and pay $9 million a year in property taxes — it’s going to take an awful lot of smaller entities to make up that difference.”
Young agreed. He said he’s watched a number of manufacturing facilities close or move, and only a fraction of the jobs lost have been replaced. The Monson Developmental Center, which is located in Palmer and employs several hundred people, is slated to be closed by the state in 2013, further reducing the base of jobs in the Quaboag area.
“We have to do something to create jobs here,” he said, “and a casino is easily our best option. People are losing their livelihoods here in Palmer, and that’s why this issue becomes extremely important.”
Moving forward, the main priority for Palmer casino backers is to stay visible, especially with regard to lawmakers, and drive home the point that the town intends to remain a prominent player in this realm.
“We’re trying to keep ourselves in the media so the focus stays on Palmer,” said Burns, “and people don’t assume we’ve given up or gone away.”
Young agreed, and said Palmer Businesses for a Palmer Casino is keeping the town’s name, intentions, and status as what he called “the frontrunner” in the casino race in front of people.
“We’re keeping the word alive,” he said, “that this bill is not dead, that Palmer and the business community are still active in pursuing this, and that most people in this town want this to happen.”
Meanwhile, Burns said he’s watching the governor’s race closely and knows who he’ll be voting for, although he’s not saying. He did say that this race poses some tricky questions for casino backers, and an atmosphere where it will be unlikely if individuals or groups like Palmer Businesses for a Palmer Casino will endorse either of the frontrunners, Patrick or Baker.
The latter is a somewhat unknown quantity on this issue, so he is somewhat of a wild card, said Burns. But Patrick, while he supports more resort casinos and essentially authored the legislation that came so close to passing, also gets most of the blame for the demise of this year’s effort.
“How can you go out and support the governor who killed the casino in Palmer?” asked Burns, referring to this year’s close call. “Still, you don’t want to tick off anyone; we need to be able to communicate with whoever ends up becoming governor in January.”
Sizing up the current state in Palmer, at least among casino backers, Burns again came back to that phrase ‘hopeful frustration,’ and said that mindset will likely remain until there is reason to lose either of those two words.
“There’s a sense in Palmer that this is still coming here,” he said. “We may be deluding ourselves, I don’t know; we understand it’s a process and there’s a lot to this process that still has to happen, but we’re hopeful this will work out for us.”

Still on Track?
Mohegan Sun officials have unveiled a new architect’s rendering of the planned Palmer casino. The new concept pays homage to the Town of Seven Railroads by incorporating what looks like a rail trestle into the design of the complex.
Whether this latest rendering actually moves off the drawing board and onto the hill just off exit 8 of the turnpike remains to be seen. Amid the myriad questions still to be answered, there is optimism among casino backers and that aforementioned hopeful frustration.
It may well be at least another nine or 10 months before they know for sure, but casino backers like Burns believe Palmer can and will eventually come out from under that shadow.

George O’Brien can be reached
at [email protected]

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