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Selectmen seek extension from Massachusetts Gaming Commission

Date: 10/3/2013

By Chris Maza

WILBRAHAM – The Board of Selectmen unanimously voted to draft a letter to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) requesting an extension of the deadline to complete surrounding community agreements with MGM or Mohegan Sun.

License applications from casino developers, which by law are required to include surrounding community agreements in which mitigation for negative impacts of the development negotiated between the towns and the gaming company are outlined, are due to the MGC for review by Dec. 31.

Wilbraham is in the unique position of having to deal with potentially negotiating two agreements because they border both Palmer and Springfield.

“This is a total David and Goliath situation and it could potentially be David and two Goliaths,” Board of Selectmen Chair James Thompson said.

A surrounding community that is actively negotiating an agreement, but has not yet completed it, may ask the MGC for an extension, Thompson explained.

He expressed serious concerns with the truncated timetable in which Wilbraham has to work with the two developers and said that at a recent meeting hosted by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) on Sept. 26 to discuss traffic impacts regarding MGM’s proposed Springfield development, those sentiments were part of “a general consensus” and MGM suggested the extension.

Thompson pointed out that the small negotiating window seemed especially unfair when compared to the time spent by host communities in generating agreements with gaming companies.

“One of the things I find truly amazing is that both Springfield and Palmer have had years or at least months, depending on the project you’re talking about, to negotiate these host contracts with the casinos,” he said. “Take Palmer for instance. If you step 20 feet over the Palmer town line into Wilbraham, there will be the same direct impacts that they’re going to have in Palmer. To give us effectively two months to work through what those impacts are when those folks have had years, it’s a process that certainly is flawed.”

The board was especially critical of the situation with Palmer and Mohegan Sun, pointing out that the two sides only recently struck a host agreement and a referendum vote is not scheduled until early November. All three selectmen pointed out that while communication with MGM has commenced, the town has received no word of any kind from Mohegan Sun.

Mohegan Sun will host its first meeting with surrounding communities on Oct. 9 at the Palmer Public Library.

“This will be the first time we’ll have any interaction with Mohegan at all,” Thompson said.

The selectmen also unanimously voted to utilize the PVPC to peer review the traffic study completed by a consultant hired by MGM.

Thompson said MGM’s study claims that traffic through Wilbraham would make up 1 percent of the peak flow into the casino.

A peer review by the PVPC is expected to be completed by the beginning of November.

Director of Planning and Development John Pearsall said utilizing a regional entity as MGM has suggested is an effort make the negotiating process easier in regards to traffic.

“I think what’s been proposed with the regional approach is to get everyone on the same page,” he said. “Certainly what MGM doesn’t want is to be negotiating with towns with different traffic studies developed with different methodologies.”

Selectman Robert Boilard voiced support of utilizing the PVPC “as long as there is an independent third party reviewing the study.”

Thompson said the town would also be responsible for reviewing an economic development study, which would be completed by the middle of November.

“We’re going to have to get outside help from people who have experience with this type of study,” he said.

Thompson explained that he suggested at the Sept. 26 meeting that the PVPC should be utilized to vet that study as well, the idea was shot down by MGM.

Town administrator Robert Weitz revisited an earlier conversation in which the board had discussed hosting a meeting of other surrounding communities and suggested that such a meeting take place shortly.

Town Counsel Michael Hassett agreed that surrounding cities and towns should form a “coalition of the willing” regarding mitigation negotiations.

“As we need more data, it would be good to have a coalition to study other impacts not addressed in [the traffic study],” he said.

Thompson also charged Weitz, Pearsall and Hassett with determining one town employee who would act as the “point man” in discussions with casino developers moving forward.

“This is the type of project that requires a project manager, for lack of a better term. Things are moving fast and they’re only going to be moving faster and that creates real challenges for a volunteer board,” he said.

The selectmen expect a recommendation at its next meeting.

Thompson also said the town is preparing to send letters voicing its concerns regarding casino impacts to both gaming companies and shared a portion of that letter with the public.

It read, “The town believes it will suffer direct and indirect community impacts and should be eligible for community impact payments determined by the town to be reasonable and necessary to reimburse the town for its capital and ongoing costs to be incurred by the town to effectively mitigate the community impacts, including, but not limited to, increased use of town services; increased use in town infrastructure; the need for additional town infrastructure, employees and equipment related to public health, safety, welfare and addictive behavior; loss of town revenue and displacement of town businesses; issues related to education and housing; issues relating to the quality of life; reduced use of town parking facilities as a consequence of additional parking being made available at the project; and costs related to mitigating other impacts to the town and its residents.

“The town further believes it will suffer direct community impacts including, but not limited to, additional police and fire protection; and administrative, education, housing and emergency medical services directly or indirectly resulting from or related to the development or operation of the project and necessary from time to time to protect health, safety and welfare of the town’s residents, the temporary workforce needed to construct the project, the employees of the project and the expected increased numbers of visitors to the town.”