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Voters gird for casino verdict; Palmer referendumis slated Tuesday.

Byline: Bradford L. Miner

PALMER -- Well before the state approved expanded gaming in November 2011 and set the stage for three resort casinos and a slots parlor, Mohegan Sun staked a claim to this town of 12,000.

That was five years ago, when it opened a storefront office on Main Street and began talking about jobs, and a brighter economic future for residents and businesses alike.

On Tuesday, its plan to build a billion-dollar resort casino on 152 hilltop acres off Thorndike Street overlooking the Massachusetts Turnpike interchange comes down to a yes-or-no vote on the host community agreement the town council approved in September.

At a rally Saturday afternoon at the Crossroads Sports Bar on Route 20, members of the Vote Yes for Palmer coalition were cautiously optimistic about the outcome.

Town councilor Paul E. Burns and Mitchell G. Etess, Mohegan Sun chief executive, called it a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity'' for Palmer to secure its economic future for generations to come.

Those who have worked to secure a positive outcome, however, were taking nothing for granted, countering the claims made by casino opponents in an unsigned flier that was widely distributed throughout town.

Mr. Burns said he would not be surprised if the opposition was being financially backed by out-of-town interests.

Mohegan Sun and its local backers have repeatedly stated the project would produce 2,500 construction jobs over the two to three years the project is being built; 3,100 full-time jobs with an average annual salary of $41,000; $16 million in annual revenue to the town; and $20 million in infrastructure improvements designed to improve traffic flow at key intersections.

Casino opponents, among them members of Quaboag Valley Against Casinos, take issue with Mohegan's claims, citing the social costs associated with gambling; reduced property values; and a host of unknowns prior to the vote, including a definitive traffic improvement plan for the turnpike interchange at Thorndike Street, the gateway to the proposed casino.

Mohegan officials told the gathering of more than 100 residents that the company's track record speaks for itself with a history of "under-promising and overachieving.''

The gaming company's promises ring hollow, however with opponents.

Iris L. Cardin, co-chair of Quaboag Valley Against Casinos, voiced her concerns Thursday in the group's Central Street storefront office while waiting for the start of an on-air, call-in program on WARE-AM 1250.

Mrs. Cardin said she was becoming more optimistic about the chances for defeating the Mohegan Sun project based on telephone and walk-in requests for anti-casino literature and lawn signs.

She and others who have stood out on street corners holding "CasiNO'' signs, question the developer's promise of jobs, revenue and economic stimulus.

"Traffic is just one example,'' she said.

"They are promising to spend up to $20 million to improve traffic, especially at the turnpike interchange on Thorndike Street, but voters will go to the polls Tuesday with only promises, no guarantees, because the final decision rests with MassDOT'' (Massachusetts Department of Transportation), she said.

"The same thing is true with jobs. Mohegan Sun promises thousands of jobs, but the host community agreement qualifies that promise, stating 'qualified applicants' will be considered for jobs.

"As far as I'm concerned, that's not a promise of jobs,'' Mrs. Cardin said.

Of more immediate personal concern to the opposition leader is the light pollution from the 24/7 operation of the hilltop casino.

"Palmer is a rural community, and those of us who enjoy watching the stars and the meteor showers in the night sky will lose that forever if a resort casino is built atop that 300-foot-high hill.''

The opposition group has been active since Mohegan Sun first arrived in Palmer, but much of its effort until recently was behind the scenes, according to the co-chair.

She said the group was energized and became more visible after West Springfield voters defeated Hard Rock New England's proposal for a resort casino on the grounds of the Eastern States Exposition.

Mrs. Cardin said the group stands by the information provided in a recent unsigned flier and said the fact that it did not have the Quaboag Valley Against Casinos name attached was an "oversight.''

She reiterated the claim of Jean Andresen, Quaboag Valley Against Casinos treasurer, that leaving the group's name off the document was an oversight and "an honest mistake'' that resulted in a printing error.

Elaine J. Boone, chairwoman of the Yes for Palmer Committee, said members had been "pounding the pavement,'' providing residents with accurate information about Mohegan's proposal and the host community agreement.

"We want the truth to be known in the wake of some very colorful fliers that have been circulated. There is much at stake in this election. This is about Palmer and Palmer's future, and whether for or against the casino, this should be decided by us without outside influence and interference,'' Mrs. Boone said.

She said she is optimistic Tuesday's vote will reflect the outcome of the town's first non-binding referendum on casinos in 1997, where the margin of victory was about 10 percent.

"This isn't just about having a resort casino on a hilltop. This is so much more in that Mohegan Sun Massachusetts will be a catalyst for economic development downtown and the outlying villages,'' Mrs. Boone said.

The polls open at 7 a.m. Tuesday and will continue until 8 p.m. at the town's two precinct polling places: Converse Middle School, 24 Converse St., and Divine Mercy parish hall, 2267 Main St., Three Rivers.
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Title Annotation:Local
Author:Miner, Bradford L.
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Nov 3, 2013
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