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Western Massachusetts legislators lobby for casino

Date: 4/20/2010

April 21, 2010.

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

GREATER SPRINGFIELD -- Will casino gaming be the vaccine for the state's sickly economy? That's the million-dollar question legislators have been debating for more than a year; and those in favor of the enterprise just came one step closer to putting their vaccine to the test.

The House of Representatives voted 120 to 37 in favor of its casino gaming bill last week, giving the Senate its turn to weigh in on the matter. But while some Western Massachusetts legislators are enticed by casinos, they're also concerned greater Boston will be the sole beneficiary.

State Rep. Rosemary Sandlin filed an amendment to the casino gaming bill earlier this month calling for at least one casino to be placed in one of the state's four western counties. "My district and people in Western Massachusetts need the jobs and opportunities a casino here would bring," she said.

"The laborers and crafts-people here are not going to benefit from jobs building a casino in the east," Sandlin continued. "The people of my district who need the full-time jobs a casino can offer are not going to travel to Boston and they should not have to."

Sandlin noted the Legislature commissioned a study to find out the economic benefits of casino gaming. Spectrum Gaming concluded that a casino in one of the western counties would yield $482 million in revenues.

State Sen. Stephen Buoniconti noted a recent study released by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth concluded that Massachusetts residents spent $968 million gambling in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island last year.

"By legalizing resort casino gambling, the Commonwealth will be able to keep that money local, creating thousands of good jobs and providing increased tax revenues which can be used to improve our schools, transportation infrastructure and other vital services," he said.

Mohegan Sun Resort Casinos is currently in talks with public officials, legislators and community leaders to build a new gaming facility on 150 acres of leased property in Palmer, according to Jeff Hartmann, Chief Operating Officer at Mohegan Sun.

"Mohegan Sun has invested in extensive market research and site analysis to determine that Palmer is the premier site for a casino resort in Massachusetts," Hartmann said.

"Extensive research shows that the Palmer site has superior infrastructure, which will enable us to build in a timely fashion and minimize local impact to the community," he added.

Hartmann said the casino will bring about 1,200 construction jobs, approximately 3,000 permanent jobs, more than 2,500 additional indirect jobs and $550 million in annual gaming revenue.

"Just as important, Palmer has been a tremendously supportive community," he said. "Since we opened an office in downtown Palmer last May, more than a thousand area residents have walked through the door."

A statement released by Citizens for Jobs & Growth in Palmer echoed Hartmann's sentiments.

"This legislation [passed by the House] is an unprecedented opportunity to advance job creation and economic viability for Palmer and the entire Western Massachusetts region. Palmer has been working for 15 years in hopes of this day and it is now before us."

However, State Rep. Brian Ashe said he isn't totally comfortable with such a venue in that location.

"I am not entirely opposed to resort casinos in Massachusetts," he said. "I do not believe that placing one in Palmer was in the best interest of my district and would have had a direct negative impact on the town of Monson. I made a commitment to my constituents there that I would oppose a casino in Palmer and I am a man of my word.

"I am very happy to see the jobs that come along with the construction of any new business although I don't want to see people fooled into believing that this will solve our current economic woes," Ashe continued. "I have a difficult time bankrolling our economy on the back of the poor as many of the profits are derived from the slot machines and the slots are most often played by those that are living paycheck to paycheck."

State Sen. Michael Knapik disagreed, adding that he does support the call for casino gaming in the state.

"The Commonwealth is in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression and our unemployment rate is at 9.3 percent," he said. "By establishing casinos in Massachusetts, we will be bringing a substantial number of jobs and revenue that will help Massachusetts and its residents get back on their feet."

Knapik added he is in favor of building at least one casino in Western Massachusetts.

"We need to ensure that all areas of the Commonwealth benefit from the creation of casinos," he said. "If we don't, the eastern part of the state will see more jobs created and then Western Massachusetts will be left out in the dark again."

When asked if he supported Buoniconti's opposition of slot parlors at existing racetracks in Eastern Massachusetts, Knapik replied, "I would not oppose slot parlors at existing race tracks; however, I believe that they would need to compete for the licenses through a competitive and open bidding process to maximize the return to the state."

State Sen. Gale Candaras stated, "Any expansion of gaming must be contingent upon significant economic development in terms of construction jobs and good paying permanent jobs. Simply installing slot machines in existing facilities likely will not provide those jobs and instead accentuate and exacerbate the most negative aspects of expanded gaming."

Candaras explained that the Senate's upcoming casino gaming bill will be "substantially different" from the House's. "It is my hope that the Senate bill will ensure regional equity, and I will work alongside my colleagues in Western Massachusetts to make it a reality," she said.