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Casinos not a panacea for Palmer

The growing interest in “how much?” is quickly absolving the remnants of moral doubt linked to Mohegan Sun’s building plans for Palmer, Mass. At least that’s what Town Council Vice President Paul Burns banks on.

Burns recently addressed fellow municipal officials at the Franklin County Technical School in Turner Falls, Mass., bluntly stating that his endorsement of a casino depends upon the amount of revenue Palmer will receive from Mohegan Sun.

His statement followed an embarrassing – if not revealing – miscommunication between the Town Council and Casino Impact Study Committee, in which five of nine councilors voted in favor of the casino before even hearing the committee’s final report, which was submitted in mid-April of 2009.

Palmer’s Town Council assembled the citizen’s committee over two years ago to analyze the possible corollaries of a casino coming to town. Members probed into a myriad of important issues, ranging from traffic control to crime trends. But that sure didn’t stop the Town Council from chucking the report directly into the recycle bin. 

One member of the group reported his frustration to the Springfield Republican.

“For the Town Council to assign a citizen’s group two years ago and to ask that they prepare a report for the Town Council on possible impacts of a casino, only to have that same committee watch as five Town Council members declare their stances on the subject before holding a proper question-and-answer session is nothing short of a slap in the face,” he told Republican reporters.

Slaps aside, the affront shows the rising level of anxiousness in getting the casino – or something – going for Palmer. The state economy has hit many communities of Western Massachusetts hard, including Palmer; unemployment rates waver around 8.3 percent in Franklin County and a whopping 12.2 percent in Springfield.

Burns and supporting Franklin County aldermen hope that the seductive figures of new jobs and services will elicit stronger support from state legislators and offset persistent local criticism. 

Mohegan Sun promises Palmer 1,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs to come from building the $1 billion casino resort. In addition, Mohegan also boasts that it will supply its establishment with locally bought goods. The company’s website states that the casino spends nearly $250 million alone on Connecticut vendors each year.

Big wigs of Mohegan Sun have touted these mouthwatering claims to Palmer and its neighbors for nearly 20 years – and it’s finally working.

Despite any formal legislation, the multi-billion dollar casino has already elbowed its way into Palmer. Just last year, Mohegan’s transformed an empty and dilapidated storefront facing Palmer’s main junction into a satellite office, consecrating it with that notorious cursive banner, “Mohegan Sun.” Though repeatedly denied authority to build, they hold a 50-year lease on land off route 32 in Palmer, with an option to renew it for an another 49 years.

They’re not going anywhere soon.

Now that Palmer’s Town Council is on board, Mohegan’s have nearly 100 years for state legislators to yield, either to financial strain or the hankering for a crap-shoot.

That isn’t to say the same old community concerns don’t swathe the casino debate. They do; but, economic pressure on Beacon Hill is slowly nudging this once fantastic bill closer towards Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk. And, as Paul Burns and company seem to think, for good reason. 

No doubt many locals feel that legislators ought to patronize the penniless purse of western Mass. Whether they ought to gamble on the silver lined promises of Mohegan Sun, is another question.

Short term payoffs from the casino could possibly bolster the feebly-inclined job growths of Palmer and surrounding counties. But make no mistake: Casino’s aren’t the magic formula for a depressed state economy. They don’t create remarkable opportunities and they cater to an isolated pocket of the job market. 

The glossy promise of jobs, however, polishes the otherwise grim exterior of casino towns. But because factory and mill jobs have disappeared from Palmer, even the staunchest opponents now appear sighingly acquiescent to Mohegan Sun’s plan.

Believe it or not, even Paul Burns was once an opponent of legal gambling.

“We’re concerned about this massive development…it will change the community.” he once told reporters. 

Unfortunately, that concern doesn’t translate into revenue or jobs. Burns, like many other long time residents of Palmer, now simply wants to get his community out of the red and into the black.

Can you really blame him?

Evan Haddad is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at ehaddad@student.umass.edu.

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