PALMER, Mass. — One opponent likens Mohegan Sun's proposed casino complex to a Star Wars spaceship, with its bright, angular features jutting from a local hillside to beckon nearby drivers on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Critics argue that the casino will snarl traffic and foster social ills because, they say, the revenue it generates will come from the earnings of people in the region.
But supporters consider Mohegan's plan to spend $1 billion developing a casino, two hotels, a water park, retail and restaurants as a rare opportunity to change this town's luck after decades of hardship. The Mohegans say the gambling resort would create 3,100 permanent full-time jobs — more than 2,000 construction jobs while it's being built — and an additional 2,000 indirect jobs.
Supporters and opponents have taken to the streets, holding signs and waving to passersby. On Tuesday, Palmer's 7,700 registered voters will decide to accept or reject Mohegan's plan.
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Palmer, less than 20 miles east of Springfield, is a town of 12,140 residents in four distinct villages that grew up around mills and factories — lumber and grist in the 1700s, wool and other textiles from the 1800s up through last century. Diamond National Corp. made egg crates there and Tambrands Inc. made Tampax tampons.
"These were factories that were good-sized factories … in the 19th century," said Palmer Town Manager Charlie Blanchard. "In the 20th century, they started to phase out. … A lot of these jobs left."
People generally agree that Palmer needs a remedy for its empty storefronts and exodus of young adults. They bitterly disagree about whether the town's economic salvation is a resort casino on a low-slung hill visible from the Mass Pike around Exit 8.
Supporters say that Palmer has never had an economic opportunity this good, and nothing will match it if the plan doesn't come to fruition. Opponents say a casino in Palmer will trade certain types of problems for others — vacant storefronts and unemployment for problem gambling and crime, for example.
"We have started our door-to-door campaign within the last, a little over a week," said Iris Cardin of the grass-roots group Quaboag Valley Against Casinos. Her organization also is distributing fliers in the neighborhoods.
"We're trying to get as many streets as possible," she said.
Cardin is the one who described the casino as a Star Wars spaceship. Her group is going up against a well-financed media campaign by Mohegan Sun that includes TV, radio and newspaper ads, as well as signs in yards and in storefront windows.
A recent campaign finance filing shows that Mohegan has spent more than $200,000 on consultants, ads and other expenditures, compared with the opposition group's $400 in expenditures and less than $1,600 in in-kind services.
Lots Of Backing
Mitchell G. Etess, Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority CEO, said, "I think we've been really committed to running a great campaign to make sure that everybody in Palmer has all the facts and everything they need to do to make a decision to allow Palmer to receive a once-in-a-lifetime chance for economic transformation."
The Mohegan tribe opened its flagship casino 17 years ago in Uncasville, Conn., and, at 3 million square feet, it is roughly three times the size of the Palmer project. As more states open up to gambling, the Mohegan tribe has expanded. The tribe has a casino in Pennsylvania and manages Resorts Casino Atlantic City. The Mohegans are also developing a casino in Washington state for the Cowlitz Tribe.
In Palmer, a television advertisement shows Etess looking over plans for the casino at the forested site, talking to locals in town, visiting a store and asking the viewer of the video clip to vote "yes" on Tuesday.
Mohegan's plan has endorsements from the Quaboag Valley Chamber of Commerce, several local restaurants and businesses, the local police officers' association, the fire chief, and some current and past elected officials.
There's a sense that supporters have a slight upper hand. Voters approved a non-binding referendum in 1997 to allow a casino in town, although plans to build one never materialized.
Mohegan Sun has an office on Main Street and has spent five years cultivating its interest in the town and in the 152-acre parcel where it would build up a steep grade off the Mass Pike. Two doors down Main Street from Mohegan's office, Northeast Group realty and development has signs in its windows urging people to vote "Yes." It is also an office for Citizens for Jobs and Growth in Palmer.
Jennifer Baruffaldi, organizer of the pro-casino growth group, beams when she talks about Mohegan Sun's plans. To people who say it will ruin the character of the town, she mentions the empty storefronts and buildings in disrepair. And then there was the blaze that swept through one of Palmer's mills in 1968, destroying the huge factory along the Swift River. A number of people in town agree that the fire was a turning point for Palmer, and that the town's economy has never fully recovered.
"Our town is dying," Baruffaldi said. "We've lost jobs. We want a revival."