A Casino In Palmer’s Backyard

Jeff Hartmann, chief operating officer at Mohegan Sun, stands beside a rendering of a planned resort casino in Palmer. Mohegan Sun has an office in town and is already leasing the land it would build the casino on if state lawmakers approve gambling in the state and Mohegan Sun receives one of the licenses. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)

PALMER, Mass. — There’s a sense of inevitability in this town when it comes to casinos.

First thing when you get off the Massachusetts Turnpike at Exit 8 are the signs: “Yes to Casinos” and “A Resort Casino Equals Jobs.” Take a right, go a mile and there — in the heart of the three-block-long downtown, near the tiny, eight-lane bowling alley and the closing furniture store — is the office for Mohegan Sun.

The Connecticut casino giant has been a presence in town for a year now, in the hope that if the state allows casinos, Mohegan Sun will get a license to build a resort in Palmer.

One thing seems pretty clear: Palmer is ready.

“When I go out and talk to folks in the community, it isn’t: Should we have a casino?” says Paul Burns, president of the Palmer town council and a casino supporter. “The question is: When’s the thing coming? You know, we’ve talked it to death. When are we going to build it?”

Ed Harrison is chairman of the select board in Monson, Palmer's smaller, sleepier neighbor to the south. He worries that neighboring towns will not get enough consideration as state lawmakers craft a casino bill. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)

Burns says that really is the attitude in Palmer. With an unemployment rate over 13 percent, the town needs jobs. Burns says a casino will guarantee not just jobs, but good ones. Mohegan Sun predicts 3,000 permanent casino jobs and more than 1,000 additional construction jobs.

Burns dismisses the idea that those jobs would cost Palmer and its 12,000 residents their way of life.

“Like it or not, change is a fact of life,” he says. “I moved into town 35 years ago and Palmer is a very different community today than it was 35 years ago. Thirty-five years ago, we had industry. Downtown was bustling. Now downtown has many empty storefronts. So, you know, this will certainly change the town. I think it will be a change for the better.”

Burns is sitting at a high, wooden table at a popular restaurant in town called the Steaming Tender. It almost couldn’t be a more fitting location for him to make his case. The building used to be the old union station, back when Palmer was known as “The Town of Seven Railroads.”

In Palmer’s heyday, as many as 40 trains would roll through each day. Now there are far fewer, and the ones that do come through usually don’t stop. Which raises questions: Why Palmer? If there is a casino, will people come? Is it good business sense to build a casino an hour and a half west of Boston?

Mohegan Sun is betting yes.

“When I go out and talk to folks in the community, it isn’t: Should we have a casino? The question is: When’s the thing coming?”

– Town Council President Paul Burns

“We looked at sites from all over the commonwealth,” says Jeff Hartmann, the chief operating officer at Mohegan Sun. “From New Bedford, from Fall River. We looked at sites in Warren and Milford and in the eastern part of the state. We’ve always come back to Palmer.”

Standing outside Mohegan’s Palmer office on Main Street, Hartmann is the only person in sight in a sharply tailored, pin-striped suit. He says with confidence that he is not worried about attracting big numbers to this small town.

“The amenities at a resort casino, I think, will draw guests from not only the commonwealth but from New York, New Hampshire and Vermont,” he says. “And that combination of gaming plus food and beverage and retail make it a draw.”

While Hartmann believes the location is good, he says it’s still secondary to the main reason Mohegan wants to build a 164,000-foot resort casino and a 600-room hotel right at the Mass Pike exit.

There are signs like these, in a store front on Palmer's Main Street, all over town -- expressing both support for and opposition to a casino in town. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)

“We love Palmer No. 1 because of the people,” he says. “We’ve found a community that has welcomed us, that we’ve opened our doors, we’ve listened to. So we’ve met a lot of people who want to start a new career. That want a job that’ll — you’ll be able to raise a family — that’ll have health care.”

What both Hartmann and Town Council President Paul Burns say seems to be true. The people of Palmer want a casino.

A recent poll conducted by the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth — and cited by just about everyone we spoke to in Palmer — found that 64 percent of people in town support Mohegan Sun’s proposal.

That number is remarkable in light of another recent study, which showed that while most people in Massachusetts support casinos, they don’t want one in their own town. It’s the “not in my backyard,” or NIMBY, phenomenon.

But if Palmer is the casino’s backyard, then Monson is its next-door neighbor. And some people there are a little more wary.

People like EmmaLadd Shepherd, co-president of the Quabbog Valley Against Casinos. Sitting in the back booth of a local diner, the white-haired retiree says she’s not so much worried about the effect that a casino would have on Palmer as she is about the impact on neighboring towns like hers.

“The western part of the state very often feels left out … sometimes we feel like the shoemaker’s child.”

– Monson Selectman Ed Harrison

“We see traffic problems as being a major issue, and then beyond that there’s damage to the road, there’s increased crime,” she explains. “If the casino brings in people to work in it, they’re liable to be looking for places here in Monson to live.”

The way Shepherd sees it, Monson would get all the costs without any benefits. Palmer could bring in millions in property taxes and in hotel and meals taxes. Monson would get none.

As chairman of the select board in Monson, Ed Harrison shares those concerns about the spillover effects of a casino on Palmer’s smaller, sleepier neighbor to the south.

To illustrate his point, Harrison shares an anecdote. “Richard Blumenthal, attorney general for the state of Connecticut,” he says, “When asked the question: What’s the biggest mistake you made when you let casinos in to the state of Connecticut? he said: We totally forgot about the communities that surrounded the community that actually sited the casino.”

Harrison heads the Western Massachusetts Casino Task Force, a neutral organization with members on both side of the debate. In fact, Burns, the town council president in Palmer, is also a member. The task force acts on the assumption that a casino is eventually coming to Palmer. The group’s role, then, is to protect the interests of the communities that will be affected.

Harrison says that, so far, the casino plans under consideration at the State House don’t provide neighboring towns with nearly enough money to cover the drain on public services. For example, he says, what if the casino hires many non-English speaking workers, who settle in nearby towns with kids who need foreign-language teachers?

“We’re not as cosmopolitan as Cambridge,” Harrison says. “If you go to Cambridge, I’m sure that they may already have that kind of capability within their school system, I don’t know. But I would like to say that we don’t have that kind of capability in Monson. And to add another teacher — another $40, $50, $60,000 — where are we going to get the money for that?”

When you get beyond I-495, it can feel like you’ve just crossed the Continental Divide. That’s something that Harrison feels acutely. He’s fighting to make sure that the locals aren’t ignored on Beacon Hill, and have a seat at the table as the casino law is drafted.

“You know, the western part of the state very often feels left out,” he says. “Because the preponderance of the population is in Boston, that’s where the action is, that’s where the money is, and sometimes we feel like the shoemaker’s child.”

Left without a pair of shoes. So, while many in the Palmer area wants casino jobs and casino money — and are expecting a casino — Harrison and others want to be sure that state lawmakers don’t just drop the thing off.

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  • http://www.filipinoboston.blogspot.com AKILES

    The Casino will Pass and there will be more jobs in Massachusetts and Western Mass especially Palmer,Worcester and Springfield will be Alive Again.

    STOP THE POLITICS sign the bill. Recession in Massachusetts is over. God Bless the people of Westrn Massachusetts.

  • http://www.filipinoboston.blogspot.com AKILES

    Here we go again Non English workers be sure they are legal immigrants to be fair with other immigrants and the people of Palmer.

  • http://none David

    Why would a casino in Palmer make Worcester and Springfield “be Alive Again”?

  • http://www.nortonmanagement.com Steve Norton

    Part of the reason that Massachusetts is considering legalizing casino gaming is to provide jobs, taxes, development and tourism. The surrounding towns and Palmer itself should not suffer the same negative impacts, as those referred to in Connecticut, because there are amply un-employed and under-employed individuals, plus students and nearby U. Mass, to fill all but a small number of casino supervisory and executive staff positions. Probably 95% of the jobs would be filled by residents of Greater Springfield, Palmer and surrounding towns. Dealers and most other casino related jobs would be offered training, possibly with Mohegan Sun providing the experienced gaming professionals as instructors, and working with a local Community College. The real negative impact could come from more traffic, although most visitors and employees would likely use the Mass Pike. I can’t believe that Mohegan would need to import non English speaking supervisors or executives and their families, and generally speaking these imports are likely to be older with fewer grade school children.
    Steve Norton

  • JMarno

    It is hard to believe that honest politicians can believe the promotional jingo of the pied pipers of Indian Gambling casinos. They never mention the fact that these casinos and businesses pay no taxes yet place great demands on public services and infrastructure all at the non-Indian taxpayers expense. The apparently don’t understand that agreements made with local govenments are often ignored and violated because of the court made doctrine that makes Indian tribes and all their businesses immune from all lawsuits. Moreover, these tribes and their businesses claim to be “sovereign governments, therefore they claim exemption from all of the hundreds of laws enacted to protect the patrons and the workers while in those casinos and businesses. Using that same claim of sovereignty they refuse to divulge any important operative facts thus making any purported agreement to pay money in lieu of the taxes they don’t pay, illusionary. Although they claim to attract visitors from afar as a “destination resort”, numerous studies have shown they mostly draw in gamblers from within a one to two hour drive and in effect, siphon discretionary monies from the nearby communities that would otherwise be spent in non-Indian businesses in the area. Businesses that can not compete with an Indian business that does not pay taxes, is exempt from all the laws and cannot be sued for their misdeeds or violations of law no matter how outrageous they may be. Lastly they never mention the increased social cost from gambling addictions, substance abuse, family neglect, bankruptcy and financial problems, crime and even icreased suicide caused by enticing gamblers to their slot machines to lose money that they cannot afford to lose. Once the construction period is over, the amount of money that trickles down into the local economy from the largely low paying “jobs” for the unprotected, transient work force is only a drop in the bucket. Most idependent studies (i.e. those not bought and paid for by the casinos and their gambling investors) demonstrate for every $1.00 dollar brought into a community by an Indian gambling casino, tht it costs the community and other non-Indian taxpayers at least $3.50.
    Those responsible to the citizens of Palmer and Western Massachusettes need to learn the true facts. Take a short trip up to see what “great benefits” there were to the community around the Seneca’s Niagra Casino in New York/Canada !!!

  • JMarno

    Attorney General Blumenthal says we forgot about the local communities? Connecticut is no different than many other states like California and Michingan. The federal law that authorizes Indian casino gambling requires that the tribe and the STATE reach an agreement or compact (25 USC 2710 d. (3).) When states negotiate these compacts they only look out for themselves and seek to get a piece of the gambling losses being siphoned out of the local host communities. Similarly the many laws that protect local communities from the negative impacts of Indian gambling casinos are completely ignored in the negotiations. Instead of including such provisions in these compacts, the state typically “sells out” local communites who get NO REAL benefit from having an Indian gambling casino thrust into their neighborhood yet have to put up with the many negative impacts that automatically follow. These state governments do not “forget” about local communities, like so many state governments they are willing to sell out local communities when it comes to Indian gambling casinos just like they do with the allocatioin of taxes they draw from all local communites and then create unfunded mandates imposed on local communites with no means to pay for them!
    Once again, if there are honest uncorrupted leaders in Palmer and any other area of Western Massachusettes they need to do a lot more homework before they welcome an Indian gambling casino with open arms !!

  • Henry Thepoet

    Don’t listen to all of the hype – follow the money. A casino license at 25% tax is a gift from MA to any operator that gets one. In this late date of new casino license, to see only a 25% tax is very suspect. Especially if you consider what MA is giving access to for a demographics perspective. MA will approve casinos but if they approve them at only a 25% tax rate, the citizens of MA better follow the money because apparently some of it made it’s way to someones pockets. Another valid reason to ban lobbyists – they are ruining this country! PA set a tax rate of over 60% and the operators fell all over themselves to license and build casinos. Wake up MA – there is a robber in the house.

  • http://www.wbur.com Lindsey

    we dont need a casino they put a casino in palmer and the surronding small towns are damned this casino may bring more money but the people in Monson and palmer will suffer. This casino will cost the towns more than their already in debt. The towns can’t even afford good school systems why do they need a casino put it some where else. Traffic will be horable and people around here like the way things are and we would like it to stay the way it is. by the way building a casino will not help springfield and and worcester come back to life. Get rid of the illegal immagrents and people riding the system, and every thing will be fine.

  • D

    Hey… the 18th century called, said it wanted its people back. Wow… some of you people must have a foot in the grave, because you all sound like a bunch of old fogies from the 50s. I can’t believe I moved in to a town of great desolate turmoil. Are you kidding me?? I moved here, only because my fiance works in Stafford Springs and is from CT, as is his family… I’m originally from Ludlow, which I used to make fun of, because there’s nothing there and high taxes – that is, until I bought a house in the oldest community on the face of the nation… no really, I feel like we have a Pony Express still… ridiculous. No wonder Palmer is going nowhere and stuck in eras past… the residents of the town and aforementioned surrounding communities want to keep things “the way they are”. “S*** or get of the pot” I say. Get with the times, change is inevitable. Damn… did dinosaurs recently become extinct here?? Do you guys realize not only is there nothing to do here (which is bad for the town… no visitors), but no JOBS, NO INCOME for those without a job, nobody wanting to put a business here due to all that I just mentioned, thereby in added income for the town, thereby increasing everything else laying it on its residents? And I’m certain there are still kinks and other things to figure out with traffic, taxes, etc. If anything, the revenue coming from the casino would decrease property taxes… speaking of which… I have no flippin children and I can’t believe I’m paying more than Ludlow’s taxes for the sad education these kids are receiving, no trash pick up, no recycle pick up (shameful to say) and since I live in the VILLAGE of Thorndike, no mail delivery. Believe me, had all this been brought to my attention, I would’ve bought a house elsewhere… maybe even CT since their taxes go to useful things that are needed for the state, its towns/cities and the residents who live therein. All I read is ridiculousness here… increased crime… yeah, because Uncasville is full of crime, right?? You hear most crime from Hartford and Springfield. Get a clue! Wake up and smell the millennium! I’m with AKILES on this one. Let’s bring the town up to date and away from the 80s.

  • http://www.wbur.org Gurney Halleck

    Paul Burns is such a shill for Mohegan Sun, he ought to have their corporate logo branded on his forehead. Guaranteed that guy will be given some cushy job within a year or two of Mohegan opening its doors in Palmer. And that UMass Dartmouth survey…biased crap. The Center for Policy Analysis is funded by casino lobbyists, fer chissakes! Wait til the roads are clogged with traffic, and our kids are crammed into 40+ student classrooms with a bunch of non-engish speaking offspring of the casino’s employees (trust me, they’ll import a bunch of experienced employees, and not hire more than a token amount of locals)…then tell us how much better off we are. The only ones that’ll make out are the casino owners and the politicians in their pockets.

  • http://www.uwsp.edu/ATHLETICS/mbb/06-07/index.htm Pointer Men’s Basketball

    You you could make changes to the webpage name title A Casino In Palmer’s Backyard | WBUR to more catching for your subject you write. I enjoyed the post yet.

  • Cmerret12

    horrible idea

  • Christopher Baker

    I think that if the Mohegan tribe was allowed to open a casino in Palmer. The surrounding towns will in deed be more able to be helped than harmed. I say this because the Mohegan people listen to others. Ask for your opinions. As well as your help. Because without surrounding residents help to the work force needed to run a casino. Then the business would be in shambles. The strength of the casino comes from it’s workers. Better privileged workers equals a better atmosphere. Drawing more interest. Intern equaling more money to be used to fix what residents in and around Palmer see as (need fixing).                                                                                                                                                                                    Sincerely, Christopher Baker                                                                                                                                                                                     ( Running Grey Wolf)   

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