By Douglas Farmer
PALMER — Even as the Citizens Casino Impact Study Committee is readying its final report on potential impacts of a resort casino on the community to the Palmer Town Council, the ultimate form gaming in the state could take has shifted with the political tug-of-war in Boston.
The possibility of casinos at racetracks and slot machine parlors at different sites are competing for political and financial attention with the resort model.
Representatives of Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority (the governing body of the Mohegan Sun casino adjacent to Uncasville, Conn.) signed what was in effect a 99-year lease last fall on 150 acres of land owned by Northeast Realty Associates, across from the Massachusetts Turnpike entrance on Route 32 in Palmer. They did so with the expectation that some version of Gov. Deval Patrick’s bill to establish a licensing process for three destination casinos on the north shore, south shore and in western Massachusetts – a proposal that died in committee last year – would be signed into law during the current legislative cycle.
Paul Brody, the vice president of development for Mohegan, said he expects a lease will be signed for a storefront in downtown Palmer by next month that will serve as a clearinghouse for public, media and government questions related to employment opportunities and design of the site, that they currently envision as a casino with restaurants, retail shops, a 4,500-seat events center and a 600-room hotel providing jobs for 3,200 to 3,400 people. Renderings will be available for those interested, he said.
“It’s too soon to tell what’s going to come out of the Legislature but we think our model will be an element of it,” Brody said.
‘Mohegan has the capital’
While he acknowledged the international economic downturn has affected the casino industry – Mohegan Sun halted plans for additional hotel space in Connecticut last year and several casino operators have filed for bankruptcy nationwide – he said the corporation definitely has the capital to move forward with its Palmer concept.
In response to the legislation that Patrick filed in 2007, the Palmer Town Council appointed a committee of residents to analyze the financial, social, cultural and physical effects of a casino in the town. Subcommittees have been working on reports on impacts related to housing, education and infrastructure, among others. The Town Council has asked Gerald Chudy, chairman of the committee, to appear before them in April.
Last summer, a random telephone survey of 485 Palmer residents done by the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth Center For Policy Analysis indicated respondents favored a casino in town by 55 percent to 25 percent, with the remainder undecided. Clyde Barrow, the director of the center, noted that these results cut across all sorts of boundaries including gender, age and income, though those of higher education and income were less likely to be enthusiastic. The survey was financed by Northeast Realty, though results do mirror that of a non-binding referendum in town conducted in the late 1990s.
Regionally, town officials have gathered in the Western Massachusetts Casino Task Force in recent months, drafting a letter to then-House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi last year urging further study of ramifications for host and abutting communities where casinos are concerned. And the anti-casino group Quaboag Valley Against Casinos (which originated in Monson but has expanded to include other towns) has not only lent support to political candidates but is planning a letter to Palmer abutters of the Northeast Realty property and a traffic simulation to show what a large number of cars to and from the casino could mean to the area.
A horse race for casinos
But even as casino backers have seen renewed hope with the abrupt departure of DiMasi and the ascension of new Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop), an advocate for gaming in Massachusetts, the picture has become hazy when it comes the structure and location of such facilities. DeLeo himself has been an advocate of establishing casinos at racetracks, welcome news to people like Gary Piontkowski, president of Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville, as well as those in western Massachusetts who care for and race horses in various states.
“In today’s age, there are a great many more slot players than casino gamblers and in the places that I race horses, the slots have been a boon and supply the cash for improved racing,” said Paul McHugh of Ware, who cares for and transports horses to Plainridge and other locations throughout the northeast. “Gary has been a great ambassador for the industry, which not only affects those at the track, but those who care for horses, grow hay and provide other services.”
That was a sentiment shared by others, like Nancy Schechterle of Wilbraham, who currently has four horses that she is either bringing to trotting competitions currently or plans to in the near future, traveling to tracks in places like Yonkers, N.Y. She said the influx of money that would come from some form of gambling at trackside would allow for increase purses for winners.
“I know how some people feel that it’s cruel but I can tell you, being down there with the horses with the trainers and drivers on the paddock, they love it,” she said.
And Robert Kenney of Belchertown, who sold a horse farm a few years ago, noted that while full-fledged casinos could take years to materialize, they could open at racetracks in a matter of months.
“In places like Plainridge and Suffolk Downs [in East Boston], the environmental studies have already been done and there is already security and a staff that is used to handling money,” he said.
Piontkowski has said he is not opposed to a casino in Palmer or anywhere else, but that racetracks made financial sense as the starting point for their development. While resort casinos are very expensive to create (Mohegan plans to invest around $1.1 billion in Palmer, should the Legislature allow it), Plainridge is eyeing a $100 to $125 million expansion with a 52,000 square foot building allowing for room for 300 video slots and many more machines.
Piontkowski and Brody have pointed to different studies in support of their positions. The former has referred to one done by Jefferies & Company, Inc. in February that smaller scale regional operations with fewer financial demands for taxes and capital have done better than destination resorts have, while the latter pointed to a report from Linwood, N.J.-based Spectrum Gaming Group commissioned by Patrick last year that said the state could collect between $500 and $700 million of the $1.1 billion spent in Connecticut and Rhode Island by residents of the state, should the governor’s concept move forward. It also pondered more unpredictable social implications of a casino, such as gambling addiction, drunk driving and an increase in traffic.
Uncertain political result for casinos
State Rep. Todd Smola (R-Palmer) has said with the budget crisis producing a considerable cloud over the work of the Legislature in recent weeks, he was uncertain the route the casino debate would take in the near future. However, he acknowledged that DiMasi’s departure presented a very significant shift in the political winds on the issue of casinos and gambling.
He said he was not in favor of giving racetracks preference, though he has also been careful not to say how he feels about casinos in general. He has always spoken publicly about the need for education on the issue, at both the state and local level.
“The racing industry has been on the decline and why should we go out of our way to support it,” he asked. “The way I see it, put licenses on the market to the highest bidder, if we’re going to have them.”
Add to that the political debate in the Legislature that has revolved around a preliminary proposal by state Treasurer Timothy Cahill to allow for the creation and licensing of three smaller scale operations and 9,000 total slot machines in the state along with the privatization of the state lottery (which he said would raise hundreds of millions in revenue), and one has about as clear a picture of what reality will look like in the end as that of a first-time gambler stepping to the card table for the first time.
Palmer Town Councilor Paul Burns, a member of the Western Massachusetts Casino Task Force, said this week he is troubled by the specter of Cahill’s proposal, because although it would presumably not put quite as much stress on local infrastructure as would a full-scale casino, it would also not create the same windfall of revenue from an operator. And he also pointed to discussions that began last fall surrounding hundreds of acres in Warren currently owned by the Massachusetts Turnpike that could be open for discussion when it came to the placement of a casino. In a somewhat perplexing move, when advocating for a casino in western Massachusetts in the contest of his broader proposal, Patrick included Worcester as part of “western Massachusetts.”
“I think something is going to happen it could be soon, and we may not have the luxury of time to respond to it,” Burns said. “At the council level, we haven’t made any decisions, but we may have to change somewhat the charge we gave to the Citizen Casino Impact Study Committee. With all the talk about it, and the condition the state is in from a financial point of view, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see another casino bill being debated this summer.”