By Douglas Farmer
MONSON — In a time when the state Legislature is desperate for money, the prospect of licensed resort casinos become all the more appealing, State Sen. Stephen M. Brewer (D-Barre) told the Western Mass. Casino Task Force last week. Therefore, he expects some form of casino legislation to be on the desk of Gov. Deval Patrick before the end of this year.
However, before it even gets to that point, he told task force members – officials attending represented the towns of Palmer, Monson, Brimfield, Belchertown, Wilbraham and Holland as well as the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) – that he would fight for a number of protective amendments to any such legislation to alleviate effects on the towns’ quality of life. And he encouraged area leaders and residents to communicate with their respective legislators about what their concerns were, from traffic to local aid.
“Don’t be shy when it comes to letting us know how you feel,” he said. “There really isn’t any bill that’s out there now that will be the final product, in my opinion. No one really knows what’s going to happen.
“But that’s when we should be weighing in on this – when it’s still soft clay to be formed.”
Officials on the task force, the Palmer Citizens Casino Impact Study Committee that cited expanded infrastructure, public safety and counseling needs in its recent report on casinos, and numerous other boards in the region followed closely a proposal by Patrick last year to establish a statewide gaming authority to license three destination casinos – one on the north shore, one on the south shore and one in western Massachusetts – though the bill was effectively killed in committee. One major change from last year in this year’s legislative cycle, however, is that while former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi was an outspoken opponent of such facilities, current Speaker Robert DeLeo has indicated his support for casino gaming at racetracks and slot machines.
Brewer noted that simply because much publicity has centered around the proposal by Mohegan Sun to construct a resort casino, hotel, events center and retail shops on 150 acres they have leased from Northeast Realty adjacent to the Massachusetts Turnpike Exit 8 in Palmer, that was not the only plan in the works. He pointed to 300 acres owned by the Mass Turnpike Authority in Warren that has been cited by some as a potential casino site.
“To me, it seems like it’s the plan below the radar screen you have to worry about,” he said.
Brewer addressed the task force gathering held at the Town Office Building in Monson April 22.
Prior to the discussion with Brewer, former Monson Selectman Kathleen Norbut related a meeting she and others had in recent weeks with state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst), who has been labeled as a key liaison on the issue of casinos by Senate President Therese Murray. She said that while Timothy Brennan, executive director of the PVPC, had envisioned a feasibility study for each site prior to any legislative approval, Rosenberg said local research would be imbedded within any proposed bill language.
“While he said the governor’s proposal had the highest level of mitigation of any such legislation, we expressed our concern that there was a lack of accounting of employees that would end up on the state health insurance rolls or the rights given to host communities,” she said. “And we had some discussion of the economic downturn, and what protections would be afforded to towns if they built up their infrastructure but the casinos didn’t provide the revenue they were expecting.”
Both Norbut and Brennan said last week that in their communication with officials in Connecticut in towns near the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos, that those south of the state line had expressed regret to not include the region in negotiations prior to their construction.
Along those lines, Belchertown Selectman Michael Reardon said he was hopeful there would be substantial local authority granted in any legislation, and not simply have proposals subject to the whims of a coterie of state-appointed figures. And Holland Planning Board Chair Lynn Arnold said that it wasn’t just a question of local control, but local understanding of the significance of proposals based on the unique characteristics of the region.
“Holland is such a little town, and we can’t support a local workforce and our school system can’t take much more, either,” she said. “It’s not just the host or abutting towns that will be affected.”
And both Norbut and Palmer Town Council Vice President Paul Burns said they had concerns about how the presence of a casino (and the theoretical revenues to the state one could generate) would affect the state formula for local aid. In any case, Brewer said that projections he had seen indicated the state lottery upon which municipalities depend for allocations of aid would be diminished for several years should casinos be established.
“We have a lot of people looking at these questions, including the two planning agencies of the PVPC and the Central Mass Regional Planning Commission (CMRPC),” he said. “With everything that’s on the table and the attention given to it, this casino issue reminds me of siting a nuclear power plant.”