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Penn National unveils plans for Springfield casino

Date: 12/26/2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD — And now the games begin in earnest in the city of Springfield.

Penn National Gaming unveiled its plans for a casino built on the current sites of the Peter Pan Bus Terminal and The Republican building at a Las Vegas themed party at the Paramount Theater on Dec. 20.

With showgirls in traditional costumes, Frank Sinatra tunes playing and a genuine sports celebrity present — football star Doug Flutie — officials of the gaming company introduced themselves and their partners for a Springfield casino.

The Penn brand is "Hollywood Casinos," and there were the trappings of a premiere with a red carpet, tuxedo-clad greeters and valet parking.

Penn's event came a week after an announcement that the management of the Eastern States Exposition had announced it was investigating a deal with Hard Rock International for a casino on its fairgrounds. Two different sources told Reminder Publications there are still other casinos operators looking at various sites in Western Massachusetts.

The party also came after Penn had paid its $400,000 fee to the state, according to the Gaming Commission, which will allow it to be considered for a gaming license.

The event was well attended with a number of public officials — including Springfield City Councilors Michael Fenton and John Lysak, Springfield School Committee member Norman Roldan, and State Reps. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera and Brian Ashe — and business leaders present. As with the MGM Resorts International announcement, there were no members of the Sarno Administration there.

Peter Pan Buslines President Peter Picknelly said his involvement in the Penn casino was a fulfillment of his late father's dream to bring a casino to they city his family loves.

"My father's vision was to revitalize Springfield," Picknelly said.

He explained that he had spoken to several casino operators over a period of months and picked Penn in part because "they are the most stable gaming company in the United States."

He noted that Penn has opened three casinos in the last year and are "completely invested in all 28 communities [in which they operate a casino]."

Not much was said about MGM during the presentation, but Picknelly noted that company's original site was in Brimfield along the Massachusetts Turnpike.

"Brimfield was Shangri-La for those guys six months ago," Picknelly said. "We are the home team."

Penn National's CEO Pater Carlino also mentioned MGM and that company's South End location as "untenable." He believes their location is superior.

Carlino stressed that his company's workforce will be "90 percent local" and that the company is "committed to diversity." He did not mention if the project would be built with union labor, something MGM's management has discussed.

James Wilmott, Penn's COO, said the construction of a casino at the proposed site would "start a ripple effect across Springfield."

He added, "We know this will happen because we've done it before."

Wilmott said the staff and management of Peter Pan Buslines would be relocated to 31 Elm St. the Court Square building the real estate company operated by the Picknelly family is renovating and there would be an air bridge built to connect the casino with Union Station.

Flutie said that he would open a sports bar in the casino where some of his memorabilia would be on display. He joked his Heisman Trophy is in a part of his house that his family seldom uses so it would be seen at the bar.

Introduced as a partner, George Arwady, publisher of The Republican, said the newspaper's involvement came out of the fact that it "was in the way of an $807 million project."

He added, "We needed to get out of the way."

Arwady announced that before the Gaming Commission decides on which company will receive the sole casino license for Western Massachusetts, the company will move its printing operations to a new building either on a parcel near Smith & Wesson or in an industrial park. He said the facility would remain within the city limits.

The other staff members of the newspaper and Masslive would be moved to a leased location downtown in an office that would be in "the heart of downtown." Arwady said this office would have the goal of "creating a beehive of activity 24/7" by having space for various public programming.

Steve Difillippo, CEO of Davio's Northern Italian Steak House, is a Springfield native who said he welcomed the chance to return to his hometown with one of his restaurants. Currently he has locations in Boston, Foxborough, Philadelphia, Pa., and Atlanta, Ga.

The other partners in the casino include Heriberto Flores, president of the New England Farmworkers Council Inc., — the owner of the Paramount Theater — Rudi Scherff, owner of The Student Prince restaurant, Sarkis Jewelry, The First and Last Tavern, Yankee Candle, Be Good Burger, Ole Restaurant Group, and Dunkin' Donuts.

Audience members saw two short films: the first, a computer animated look of how the city would appear after the casino's construction, while the other was a montage of construction footage.

After the presentation the audience was asked to stay, enjoy refreshments and get a photo with Flutie. Both Lysak and Fenton said they were impressed with the presentation, but Lysak added he would like to see more details.

On the way out, the guests received a Yankee Candle votive candle and a plastic Christmas ornament.