Trying to Better Their Odds

As Key Votes Loom, Palmer Casino Backers Put Their Chips on the Table
Trying to Better Their Odds

Paul Brody says the state needs a casino ‘outpost’ in Western Mass.

For years now, casino backers, including those pushing for a resort operation in Palmer, have said it’s a question of when, not if, such gaming operations are approved. They’re saying it again this year, and with a House vote to support casinos already secured, and confidence that the Senate will follow suit, attention is now focused more than ever on where casinos will be located. Mohegan Sun, which would develop the $1 billion Palmer facility, believes it has a winning hand, because it maintains that the state needs what it calls a “Western Mass. outpost.”

The storefront has been open for just over a year now. In fact, an open house was recently staged to mark the anniversary.

It’s right in the middle of Main Street in Palmer, clearly visible to those approaching downtown from Route 32. The Mohegan Sun sign is large and prominent in the window.

Visitors to the former retail space — now decorated in the motif of the casino in Uncasville, Conn. operated by the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, complete with a few seats from the arena where the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun play — have a few primary objectives, said Paul Brody, vice president of development for that organization.

Some want to pose questions about the potential impact on their homes or businesses from a proposed $1 billion casino complex on land just off the exit 8 interchange of the Turnpike. “They want to know about traffic and how that will be and how it will be mitigated,” he said. But most are inquiring about jobs and, more specifically, what kinds of opportunities will be created. Mohegan Sun isn’t taking job applications, but it is signing people up, with the intent of calling them back if the complex becomes reality.

“And some others … they just want to know what’s going on with this thing,” said Brody, one of four Mohegan employees who staff the storefront. “They want to know if this is going to happen, and when — whether it will be one year, two years, or more.”

And Brody says he tells them basically what he also told BusinessWest when it stopped by the office: that these are certainly critical times for those who support — and oppose — organized gaming in Massachusetts, and especially for those who have invested considerable time (several years), energy, and emotion in Mohegan Sun’s proposed complex, which would be built on a hill high above the pike and Route 32 and include a 164,000-square-foot casino, a 600-room hotel, 12 restaurants, and 100,000 square feet of retail space.

The state House of Representatives has passed a bill calling for two casinos and several slot operations at racetracks (called racinos by some), and the Senate is due to vote on its own version later this month. There is strong sentiment that the Senate will also vote to support some kind of gaming package, but the devil is in the details, and Brody acknowledged that, while he is not conceding anything regarding the broad vote to green-light casinos, he said the conversation is, in many ways, shifting to where they’ll be located, not if.

And thus, Brody also tells visitors, as he told BusinessWest, that, in response to a request for data that might help legislators determine where, Mohegan Sun commissioned a study that shows that a casino in Palmer, or “Greater Palmer,” as she called it, would benefit the state more than one built in another proposed location (Milford), assuming that the second casino is built at the Wonderland complex in Boston.

The study, conducted by Morowicz Gaming Advisors, LLC, concludes that a casino in Palmer, instead of Milford in Central Mass., would result in $43.8 million in additional gaming revenue annually to the state, and nearly $100 million more in out-of-state dollars coming to the Commonwealth, primarily because it would lure more New York State residents than one farther east.

The study — which, to no one’s surprise, is being questioned by the backers of a Milford casino, who have a different take — is one of many ways backers of the Palmer resort are trying to build momentum at a time that many consider critical to the town’s future.

They’re presenting the proposal as more than a casino, but also as a way for an economically beleaguered community to replace manufacturing jobs that have left over the past two decades and provide long-term stability, while also bringing other types of development to nearby vacant or underutilized real estate. Meanwhile, they’re presenting it as the state’s best bet for a secondary resort outside Boston.

“This is not just a singular project on the hill, but potentially other kinds of development that will blend with the flow of traffic,” said Leon Dragone, president of the Northeast Resort Group, which owns the proposed casino property and leases it to Mohegan Sun, and now also occupies the space two doors down from Mohegan on Main Street. “There are several other properties we’re looking at.”

The Hand That’s Been Dealt Them

There’s a cluster of signs greeting motorists getting off the exit 8 interchange, most of them directing them to businesses and attractions in Palmer, to the right down Route 32, or in Ware, a few miles to the left.

But there are three relatively new additions that, along with a smattering of lawn signs along Route 32 supporting the casino effort, tell of the sense of urgency in Palmer these days and the importance of the casino to the town’s fortunes.

There’s the ‘Mohegan Sun — A World at Play’ sign in bright yellow, flanked by two signs of support, one for each of two recently formed groups: Palmer Businesses for a Palmer Casino and Citizens for Jobs & Growth in Palmer.

Robert Young is a member of both groups. He owns a landscaping company and has lived in Palmer most of his life, or at least long enough to see most manufacturing jobs leave and nothing of any substance to fill the employment void. Indeed, as he listed the manufacturers that have departed, including Tambrands, Zero Corp., Pearson Industries, and others, he said efforts to attract different kinds of employers, including those in high tech and the biosciences, have not met with success.

He acknowledged that the former Tambrands complex, seeking new tenants for more than a decade now, has attracted some new businesses, but few if any that are large employers.

“Palmer is a town that’s dying, and it’s been dying for a long time,” he said, noting that the ease with which Mohegan Sun and Northeast found vacant storefronts in the middle of downtown says something about the deterioration of the central business district. “We’ve lost tons of manufacturing jobs and support jobs, and nothing has materialized to replace them.

“We have no more jobs for a lifetime,” he continued, noting that, in his view and in the opinion of those who undertook a study on the subject at UMass, casino jobs are the new factory jobs that can support families for decades.

But jobs are not the only component of the argument being proferred by the support groups and other Palmer-site backers, who say a casino could lead to other kinds of economic development in the community and, in the process, fill a number of vacant parcels in and around Palmer with everything from additional hotels and restaurants to golf courses.

“There are a number of sites that could potentially be developed,” said Dragone, citing a 30-acre parcel once proposed for a Lowe’s and a 95-acre parcel in Ware as just two examples.

He said a North Carolina-based firm is being considered to create a master plan for nearby undeveloped parcels. Speaking broadly, he said a casino in Palmer could do for the town and surrounding region what the resort in Uncasville has done for Mystic, Conn., about a half-hour down the road, known for attractions such as its aquarium and Mystic Seaport.

“It’s quite legendary what’s occurred there, which has been a direct result of the blossoming of the gaming industry in the southeastern part of Connecticut,” he said. “It’s become much more of a year-round tourist attraction, where before, it was mostly seasonal.”

Doubling Down

While the Palmer casino support groups present their arguments about the benefits of resort casinos in general and a Palmer facility in particular, Mohegan Sun is devoting most of its efforts now toward pressing the case for a Western Mass. casino, said Brody, who is now splitting his time between Palmer and Boston, where he and lobbyists hired by the firm are trying to gain the ear of lawmakers.

The Morowicz Gaming Advisors’ numbers already have the attention of many legislators. They show that if there was one casino in Boston and a second in Palmer, the total gross slot and table revenues for the state in 2014 would be $1.168 billion, as opposed to $1.124 million for a Boston/Milford mix. Meanwhile, total out-of-state money coming into the Commonwealth would be $216.4 million with a Boston/Palmer scenario, compared to $119.1 million with a Boston/Milford combination.

The former numbers result from a Central Mass. facility essentially “cannibalizing” (the report’s authors’ word) the Eastern Mass. casino and racinos, while the latter is due largely to Palmer’s proximity to New York, resulting in reduced drive time for New York residents traveling to Palmer, as opposed to Central Mass.

Those in the industry say individuals will generally drive no more than two hours to frequent a casino, said Brody, which puts a Palmer resort in reach for people in Albany, Schenectedy, and Troy, and a Milford facility less so.

While Milford-resort backers have questioned the study’s results, Brody said that, objectively speaking, they are hard to argue with.

“There’s no outpost in the western portion of the state to attract the gaming revenue from this area and the New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire area,” he explained, adding that, in addition to that geographical logic, it’s clear, to him at least, that a Central Mass. casino would be far more vulnerable to cannibalism from existing facilities and ones that could come on the drawing board.

“What happens if New Hampshire launches gaming in the next few years at Rockingham and Seabrook?” he asked rhetorically. “That will have a profound impact on that whole Central Mass./ Eastern Mass. area. There’s a huge concentration of either existing or proposed facilities, all in or near Eastern Mass., and that’s why the math from this study is so compelling.”

Time will tell if the numbers and words coming out of the Mohegan camp will sway the decision makers in Boston, but Brody remains cautiously confident, and conveys this to visitors to the company’s storefront.

He said the volume of traffic increases when “something happens” like the House vote or when a key player endorses casinos. And that means the facility is quite busy these days.

“People sense that this is closer to reality than ever before,” he said. “We see it in the community, and we see it right here. There is still a ways to go, but people are excited; they sense that this is real.”

Roll of the Dice

Brody told BusinessWest that Mohegan Sun opened its storefront on Main Street to provide a resource for those with questions, opinions, and desires to land one of the projected 3,000 jobs to be created at the proposed resort. Meanwhile, the company wanted to provide a highly visible way of showing that, in some ways, it was already part of the Palmer community.

Whether Mohegan eventually assumes an exponentially greater presence and occupies a hilltop rather than a 1,000-square-foot storefront remains to be seen. The Legislature still has to decide if it will give the go-ahead for casinos, and then, if it does take that step, where to put them.

The Palmer site’s backers think they have a good hand, but they’re working hard to improve their odds in any way they can.

And in only a few weeks, they should find out if that hand is a winner.

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

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