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Public reaction minimal to continued casino rumors

Date: 5/23/2012

May 23, 2012

By Debbie Gardner

WESTFIELD — Advancement Officer Jeffrey Daley told Reminder Publications that rumors naming Westfield as a contender for the proposed Western Massachusetts casino are at best, a bit premature.

Regarding what was considered a casino announcement, Daley said, "there wasn't really an announcement. There have been a couple of casino [developers] that have visited a site where an old mall project used to be off of the turnpike, but it really hasn't gone any further."

The rumors, he noted, have been circulating since mid-April, when a story in a Northampton newspaper indicated several casino developers had expressed interest in Westfield.

Daley confirmed that Penn National Gaming Inc. of Wyomissing, Pa., and Hard Rock of Orlando Fla., have spoken with both Mayor Daniel Knapik and the owner of the former Pavilion Mall site, but "neither of them have signed any agreements or come to any agreement with the [property] owner."

Daley said Knapik's conversation with some local businessmen during a recent coffee hour was "taken the wrong way," spawning the most recent round of casino rumors.

"He just gave an update [that] casinos had been in contact with us [and that] we let them know that if there was a casino in Westfield, what we would be looking for out of the gate," Daley said.

What the city would not be looking for is what Daley termed a "slots in a box" or "gambling hall" concept.

"The concept must focus on the entertainment value a project this size could bring — entertainment (shops, concert hall, movie theater, restaurants, etc.) first — and then gambling," Daley said, adding that Knapik would demand that any developer "find a way to have minimal impact on our city streets and our way of life as we know it today and be committed to fund those impacts."

Daley also said if the Knapik considered a casino project good for Westfield, he would "support putting it to a referendum and let us, the voters of Westfield decide its fate."

Though Daley indicated there is no definite interest from developers to bring a casino to Westfield, the public has already begun to weigh in on the prospect.

Ward 4 City Councilor Mary O'Connell said she has heard comments from constituents about the proposed project, and the sentiment is running "75 percent against and 25 percent in favor."

At large City Councilor David Flaherty said he had heard from several constituents who "don't want anything to do with a casino and think the city is crazy to pursue it."

O'Connell said she is trying to keep an open mind about the potential of a casino coming to Westfield — as she hasn't seen any details yet — but her general feeling is that "the long term detriment to a community far outweighs any construction dollars and tax revenue that flow into a city" from the addition of a casino.

"We can and should do better for our citizens than, as our big saving project, erecting a casino," O'Connell said.

Ward 1 City Councilor and Council President Christopher Keefe said that, as of May 15, he hadn't been contacted by anyone in opposition to a casino in Westfield, though he had received some indirect comments and an anonymous mailing.

Keefe said he was "excited and cautiously optimistic" about the prospect of a developer choosing Westfield as the site for the Western Massachusetts resort casino, especially if the design were a self-contained one, such as that of the Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun casinos in Connecticut. Those, he pointed out, have minimal impact on the way of life in surrounding communities.

Keefe noted, however that there would be obstacles to overcome before a casino could locate on the Pavilion Mall site, including access.

"Without the express cooperation of the Commonwealth with regard to an exclusive entrance from the Massachusetts Turnpike, or an extensive expansion and reconstruction of the current Exit Three, this project will not be possible," he said.

Should all the pieces fall into place and, most importantly, the voters of Westfield approve a casino for their city, Keefe said, at the $500 million it is estimated a casino developer would sink into the project, the Pavilion Mall site "would be the most valuable parcel of real estate in Hampden County.

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