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?”
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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.