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Discussion begins about special election


April 22, 2013
<b>Possible traffic solutions for the Hard Rock New England resort casino proposal.</b><br>Photo courtesy of Hard Rock International

Possible traffic solutions for the Hard Rock New England resort casino proposal.
Photo courtesy of Hard Rock International

By Carley Dangona

carley@thereminder.com

WEST SPRINGFIELD — On April 16, Attorney and former state Sen. Stephen Buoniconti kickstarted a dialogue with the Town Council about the timeline for the special referendum election.

Residents will decide the fate of the proposed Hard Rock International resort casino if the town is awarded a gaming contract by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

The resort casino would be situated on the Gate 9 area of the Eastern States Exposition Fairgrounds (ESE), and would be a tenant of the property. The proposal includes a 400-room hotel, a spa, a 200,000 square-foot casino, a Hard Rock Café and a 150,000 square-feet retail area. Other features included a permanent music memorabilia display, a 25,000 square-foot convention area and a music school.

Hard Rock originally presented its traffic strategies on April 10 at a joint meeting of the Town Council's Casino sub-committee and Mayor Gregory Neffinger's Casino Commission.

During the previous presentation, four major initiatives were outlined:

•New U.S. Route 5 Interchange: A secondary means of ingress and egress into ESE, creating a clear, direct path into ESE and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino New England, while providing congestion relief throughout the entire area;

•Memorial Avenue Renovation: Major improvements to include a widening from four lanes to five lanes, extending from Memorial Bridge Rotary to Circuit Avenue, as well as improved signalizations, beautifications and pedestrian walkways;

•Massachusetts Department of Transportation (massDOT) Synchronization: Enhancements to be synchronized with massDOT projects at the Memorial Bridge Rotary and Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, to insure the maximization of projects already planned and/or funded; and

•ESE Campus Circulation and Parking: Upgrades within the grounds to provide enhanced entry and exit.

At the April 10 presentation, Jim Allen, chair of Hard Rock International, once again reiterated the company's desire to serve as a partner to the community. "We are a guest in your municipality and hopefully, on a long-term basis, we can be a true partner to your municipality."

He continued, "We have assessed the issue from every particular angle to make sure we were taking all thought processes into consideration." He estimated a 30 to 50 percent increase in road efficiency upon completion of the infrastructure improvements.

ESE president and CEO Eugene Cassidy said, "We need their plan. We need their commitment and their resources to bring the area to new life."

He added, "No other project, resource or agency has ever stepped forward with this level of commitment and completeness to address traffic and parking on the ESE grounds."

Cassidy said the proposed traffic improvements would transform the Big E into the "Big Ease."

On April 16, Buoniconti stressed to the council that Hard Rock is willing to and capable of supporting extensive infrastructure improvements in the area to ensure daily life is not hindered by traffic with the addition of the resort.

He noted that Hard Rock is willing to spend upwards of $35 million dollars to alleviate any and all traffic concerns.

He referred to the proposed U.S. Route 5 interchange as a "relief valve for congestion purposes." He stated that an estimated 7,000 vehicles a day will travel to the casino, noting that approximately 46,000 vehicles travel to the Big E at times of peak attendance.

Buoniconti said the Fridays and Saturdays after 7 p.m. will be the period most affected by patrons traveling to the resort casino, which is beneficial since there is no work commute on Saturdays.

When asked by Council Vice President Brian Griffin when Hard Rock seeks to conduct the special referendum election for voters to weigh in on the proposal, Buoniconti stated that a timeframe had not been set.

"Next to traffic, that's probably the biggest question," Buoniconti said. "A host-community agreement has to be established first. Then, Hard Rock has 60 to 90 days to request the election. Hard Rock wants people to be fully educated about the project to know the pros and cons of it before making a decision."

He added, "Hard Rock wants to keep everything moving in a progressive way." He told the councilors that the company plans to offer a "critical path calendar" to them within the next few weeks.

The next step for Hard Rock is to present its plans to the community. On April 24, Allen and Cassidy will be available from 7 to 9 p.m. at the West Springfield Middle School, located at 31 Middle School Drive. The event will be an open house for residents to ask questions and learn more about the proposed resort casino.

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