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Last minute entry takes gamble on Western Mass.

Date: 1/17/2013

By Carley Dangona

GREATER SPRINGFIELD — Four casino empires have gone all in, hedging their bets on gaming in Western Massachusetts.

Hard Rock International, MGM Springfield, Mohegan Sun and Penn National Gaming have cashed in $400,000 to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission before the Jan. 15 deadline so that they may be in the running for the sole gaming license in the region.

Mohegan Sun has partnered with Brigade Capital Management, an investment advisor that will provide capital for the casino project in Palmer. MGM Springfield and Penn National are vying for properties in Springfield, while on Jan. 11 Hard Rock International revealed last-minute plans for the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino New England at Eastern States Exposition (ESE) in West Springfield.

Richard Bronson, CEO of The Bronson Companies, explained the company chose ESE for its location because of the site's regional appeal.

"It's the most logical location," Bronson said. He added that there would be "tremendous synergetic benefits" to West Springfield and the surrounding communities.

The site would include a 400-room hotel, a Rock Spa with a tropical indoor pool, a 200,000 square-foot casino, a Hard Rock CafĂ© and a retail area of approximately 150,000 square-feet. Other aspects include "The Vault" — a museum of music memorabilia — a 25,000 square-foot convention area and a school where children and young adults can learn about music.

"Our announcement was late in the game by design," Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the ESE, said. "We are a public charity and have a high standard of expectations [to live up to] — we wanted to do things right."

He described the partnership between ESE and Hard Rock as "a coordinated effort."

Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International, described the development as a destination entertainment and gaming facility. He stated that the designs are for a resort, "not machines in a box."

Allen and Cassidy addressed the issue of traffic head on. Cassidy explained that traffic is "of paramount concern" for all involved with and affected by the project. Allen stated that Tighe & Bond has traffic studies underway to determine the best possible solution to benefit both the fairgrounds and its community.

"We believe we're the place," Cassidy said. "Today [Jan. 11, we got] the first down. We have 80 yards to go."

According to Allen, many benefits of a Hard Rock Casino include thousands of permanent jobs, tax revenue, tourism and philanthropy.

Allen stated, "Philanthropic efforts are what we do. Whenever we have the honor to move into a particular destination, we like to work with a local, a global and a regional charity. Today we're happy to announce our global efforts on behalf of Hard Rock New England here in West Springfield will be Farm Aid, a Massachusetts-based charity. On a regional basis it will be the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and on a local basis it will be the Parish Cupboard."

He continued, "The company is going to donate $25,000 [to be distributed among the three charities], but I am personally going to donate $10,000 to each one of these individual charities, so that hopefully everyone here today understands that isn't just lip service. It's a demonstration that we are serious about this amazing opportunity."

Allen cited the company's stability as the factor that set it apart from the developers seeking to create a casino in Springfield. He noted there are 177 Hard Rock venues in 58 countries that employ more than 30,000 people.

He ensured the project would "stay within the tradition and history of the Big E" and would coordinate its scheduling efforts with ESE to ensure that the long time happenings, such as the Big E, are not impeded on in any way.

Allen noted, "We're a guest of Gene [Cassidy] and Don [Chase, chair of the ESE Board]. We're fortunate enough that they've allowed us to utilize 38 acres of the facility on a ground lease, but we owe them and we will commit to give them the respect to make sure that this becomes an enhancement to the 96-year history here."

Allen stated the next step for Hard Rock is to work with the city and the community to address all the issues associated with traffic and parking.