Friday, October 9, 2015         


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Casinos begin moving into cash-strapped New England



BRIMFIELD, Mass. » Spurred on by a gambling law so new that the agency charged with enforcing it does not yet exist, developers are scouring this state for places to build casinos — looking in cities and on the coast, off the Massachusetts Turnpike, by the stadium where the New England Patriots play, and even in little towns like this one, known for its summer antiques fairs and not much else.

Brimfield, population 3,600, would be perfect for a "New England-style resort in the woods," says MGM Resorts International, the company that owns the Bellagio, the Mirage and other giants of the Las Vegas strip.

After shunning the concept for years, Massachusetts, seeking solutions to its budget woes, last fall became the first New England state to pass a broad law allowing resort casinos. Now others may not be far behind.

Under the Massachusetts law, which allows for three casinos to be built in three different regions, the state will pocket 25 percent of the gambling proceeds, plus 40 percent of the proceeds from a separate slot parlor that it will also allow. It is a potential bonanza that, combined with thousands of promised jobs, has much of New England poised to cast aside Yankee restraint and follow suit.

The type of law that Massachusetts passed is different from the more limited arrangement Connecticut has with two Indian tribes, which gives the tribes exclusive rights to offer casino gambling at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in exchange for a portion of their revenues.

In New Hampshire, which dreads losing tourism money to Massachusetts, lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow up to four casinos there.

Maine just granted its first casino license to a six-year-old Bangor slot parlor that will add table games next month, and a second casino is expected to open in Oxford this year. Both are the result of voter referendums. Rhode Island, which already has two slot parlors, will hold a referendum in November on whether to allow table games at one of them.

In Connecticut, the two Indian tribes that have exclusive rights to offer casino gambling, at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, are now worried about losing patrons to Massachusetts. The Mohegan tribe is hoping to win one of the Massachusetts casino licenses and open a Mohegan Sun location in Palmer, a town of 12,750, which borders Brimfield.

The region's compact size makes the threat of losing money to gambling enterprises in neighboring states all the bigger, said Clyde Barrow, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, who studies gambling laws. "They already have people leaving to gamble," he said of other New England states. "They can continue watching those jobs and revenues leave their state or pass gambling legislation to keep them."

Just how many jobs and how much revenue the Massachusetts casinos will generate, though, is an open question. State officials have estimated revenues of between $300 million and $400 million a year, and up to $300 million in one-time licensing fees. But in other states with casinos, revenues have often fallen short of early projections.

The industry has also struggled in the recession; Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun have each lost about 20 percent of their business since the downturn began, according to Barrow, and both are mired in debt.

So far, at least nine developers are actively seeking land or drafting casino proposals in Massachusetts, where Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, signed the law in November. In addition to MGM, they include other big-name companies like Wynn Resorts, which hopes to build near Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, a town of 17,000, and Caesars, which is looking at East Boston.

Most are promising that the casinos in Massachusetts, home to fiercely protected stone walls, white steeples and town greens, will look nothing like their Las Vegas cousins. In Palmer, Mohegan Sun has proposed a building with a trestle-like design in front — a nod to the town's history as a railroad hub. In Brimfield, where the proposed casino site is in a valley below an overlook, MGM officials said the design would be understated, with stone and wood elements.

MGM has already opened an office on Main Street in Brimfield, in a Cape Cod-style house across from the town hall. Meanwhile, the select board is seeking a consultant to help it negotiate. At a recent meeting, Diane Panaccione, board chairwoman, listed everything the town might need if a casino opened there. The Fire Department would need aerial equipment and a new substation. The Board of Health is worried about sufficient water supply and sewage disposal.

The elementary school might need more teachers of English as a second language — the schools in Ledyard, Conn., hired more than a dozen after Foxwoods opened there in 1992, Panaccione said — and the social services department would want counselors for gambling addiction and drug and alcohol abuse.

While not taking a position on the casino yet, Panaccione noted that it could help the town's tax base, which took a hit when two tornadoes swept through last summer, destroying 42 homes and damaging more than 100.

Virginia Irvine, a resident of Brimfield who helped lead a successful fight against a wind turbine proposal here last year, said she worried that after the tornados, residents might be more tempted to approve a casino. "We will have a big fight about this," she said, "because there are people that will say, ‘How can you turn down millions of dollars?"'

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