By Daniel Trotta
SPRINGFIELD, Massachusetts (Reuters) - The Massachusetts Turnpike carves its way east from Boston through the upland hills and small towns of western Massachusetts, an area hard-hit by the recent recession. It is here that some of the biggest names in casino gambling are laying down fortunes in hopes of reaping big payoffs, while local supporters and antagonists gird for a showdown.
Massachusetts is but the latest state to bet on gambling as a salve for its wounded economy. Before the first blackjack is dealt or the first patron craps out, the municipalities in which the gaming companies hope to set up shop will have their say.
The Massachusetts law requires casino companies to reach a host agreement with a town's leadership, then gives local voters veto power through a referendum.
Proponents point to promised jobs. Opponents decry what they see as an assault on morality, fear traffic and crime, and doubt the claims of prosperity. Both sides can claim some momentum.
In Holyoke, where the Mass Pike intersects the Connecticut River, an old mill town of 40,000 people has said no to Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which wanted to build a casino on the country club golf course.
In more bucolic Palmer, a town of 12,000 less than 20 miles to the east, officials are in advanced talks with Mohegan Sun, the company that operates one of the largest casinos in the country, on Native American land in Connecticut.
Similar negotiations are under way in Springfield, the largest city in western Massachusetts, and in a handful of small towns that have captured the attention of casino companies.
After two decades of debate the Massachusetts legislature in November passed a law calling for three resort casinos plus one slot machine parlor in the state. That made it the 24th state to embrace gaming. Officials hope projections from experts are right that gamblers could drop $2 billion a year in Massachusetts betting halls.
The law drew up three districts in the state and allotted one casino license to each, ensuring that western Massachusetts, an area lagging the rest of the state in jobs and income as a result of a lost manufacturing base, would receive a jolt of economic development. The other districts are the southeastern part of the state and the Boston area.
"The question no more is about the morality of a casino. That's been decided," said Kevin Kennedy, chief development officer for Springfield. "The question now is about location and benefits and economics for the community that's selected."
The argument may be settled statewide but will now be disputed at the local level, where opponents who never wanted to see Massachusetts embrace casinos can at least try to stop them in their hometowns.
"To me, the biggest issue is that the casinos are predatory. The new electronic slot machines are called the crack cocaine of the casino industry," said EmmaLadd Shepherd, 77, an activist in a group called Quaboag Valley Against Casinos. "People are spending not only discretionary money. They're spending the mortgage, the rent, the grocery money."
Opponents, including a coalition of Christian churches that have banded together, are bracing for battle.
"We're ramping up. ... We're preparing for that fight," said Timothy Paul Baymon, president of the Council of Churches of Greater Springfield. "They (the casinos) may have deep pockets, but we have the ears of the people."
The law sets a minimum investment of $500 million - big enough to lift a local economy but not so big as to push a casino into excessive debt.
Local opposition has felled giants elsewhere in the state. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Las Vegas magnate Steve Wynn of Wynn Resorts Ltd wanted to build a casino in Foxborough, about 30 miles south of Boston, but they withdrew their proposal after voters replaced two pro-gambling members of the town board with opponents.
MATTER OF GEOGRAPHY
In the Boston region, a consortium of the Suffolk Downs racetrack and Caesars Entertainment Corp is widely seen as the front-runner. The law gives preference to Native American tribes in the southeastern region, and the Mashpee Wampanoag's casino proposal took a step forward this month when voters in Taunton approved a referendum on the plan.
That leaves western Massachusetts as the wide-open territory.
In 2008, Mohegan Sun took out a 99-year lease on 152 acres of wooded hilltop in Palmer. It says it has spent some $15 million on rent, engineering and design studies, and public relations, including a storefront in downtown Palmer.
Ameristar Casinos Inc in January closed the deal on a $16 million purchase of a 41-acre parcel in an industrial section of Springfield where it hopes to build an urban casino.
Hard Rock, Penn National Gaming Inc and MGM Resorts International all have publicly expressed interest in the region, and others may follow.
The daily Springfield Republican reported on Wednesday that it has received an offer from a partnership linked to Peter Pan Bus Lines chief Peter Picknelly to develop a casino on its 152-year-old building on Main Street, so it will decline to write editorials for or against any possible casino site.
Whether looking to build an urban casino in Springfield or a rural resort in the hills surrounding the city, gambling interests see opportunity in a down economy.
The winning project - still at least a year from being chosen by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission - is expected to create about 2,000 construction jobs, some 2,000 to 3,000 direct jobs at the casino and an equal number of indirect jobs.
Hampden County, which includes Springfield and towns such as Palmer, Holyoke and Brimfield that have attracted casino developers, had an unemployment rate of 7.2 percent in April compared with 5.9 percent for all of Massachusetts. Income levels were about 27 percent lower, and poverty nearly seven points higher, 2010 census data show.
"The casinos were sold largely as a jobs bill," said John Epstein, part of the citizen opposition in Holyoke that led Hard Rock to abandon its plans. "Under any other economic situation, it never would have flown. The crash of 2008 and subsequent turmoil opened the door."
THE BATTLE FOR HOLYOKE
Like their counterparts in Foxborough, voters in Holyoke sent a message via town hall elections.
While the legislature debated the casino bill, last year's mayoral race in Holyoke split the community ahead of the November vote.
Incumbent Mayor Elaine Pluta, 68, campaigned in favor of pursuing the proposal, saying it would be negligent to immediately reject a $500 million project.
Challenger Alex Morse, then 22, was against it, calling gambling a regressive tax on the elderly and poor.
With the casino proposal the central issue of the campaign, Morse won, 5,121 votes to 4,513.
"The fundamental question is what do we want to be known for here in Holyoke, and it definitely isn't casino gambling," said Morse, now 23. "It's our status as the birthplace of volleyball, the first planned industrial city in all of the country, cheapest utility rates in all of New England. An economy based on technology and art."
Holyoke is known as the Paper City for the old paper mills powered by a dam on a steep drop in the Connecticut River and a canal system in town. Today, it is pinning its hopes on education and technology. The Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center, a collaboration of five universities including Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, is scheduled to open this year on a 90,300-square-foot academic research facility near the old canals.
Prestigious as the computing center may be, it will employ only 13 people once construction is complete.
The town of Palmer has found it difficult to replace jobs since a Tampax factory closed 20 years ago, and casino opposition has been muted.
"We need more than 10 jobs in Palmer," said Paul Burns, president of the town council in Palmer, where the political leadership has actively courted a casino.
"Each community has to decide on its own," Burns said. "(Morse) is standing by his guns, just as I'm standing by mine. He was elected on his platform. I've been re-elected on mine."
(Editing by Prudence Crowther and Douglas Royalty)