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Cities near casinos start talking to developers


April 26, 2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

news@thereminder.com

Mayor Michael Bissonnette of Chicopee, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and Springfield City Council President James Ferrera II are all starting the process of considering the conversation with casino developers on the impacts — and compensations — the gaming centers will have in their communities.

In Springfield's case, Ferrera has invited the chairman of Hard Rock International to begin a conversation about the side effects of the proposed Hard Rock Casino proposed for the East States Exposition grounds in West Springfield.

Springfield is the only community in the commonwealth with competing casino developers, but Ferrera, speaking at his Casino Site Committee meeting on April 23, said the mitigation conversation with Hard Rock is an "insurance policy" if Springfield is not awarded a license.

In a statement Ferrera issued, he said, "There is no guarantee that Springfield will be awarded a gaming license or pass a gaming referendum. Those choices are in the hands of the voters and the State Gaming Commission. If a casino at the Big E were awarded a gaming license it would have a tremendous impact on downtown Springfield and job creation. We as city officials would be remiss in our duties if we ignored that possibility and did not begin to plan for it. Agawam and Longmeadow have already started their mitigation process with Hard Rock. Therefore I have requested that James Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International, attend a Site Committee meeting on this matter."

Ferrera added at the meeting that Springfield "should be at the table" if Mohegan Sun is picked in Palmer as well.

Ferrera's statements cam the same day that Mayor Domenic Sarno announced the process of negotiating a host agreement with each developer has prevented the city from piggybacking a casino vote onto the June 25 election for the senate.

"While I have been informed that negotiations are close to complete, there will not be a completed agreement(s) for approval prior to April 25, 2013," Sarno said in a written statement.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is still grappling with the definition of a "surrounding community," according to its chair, Stephen Crosby, who made remarks about mitigation at a meeting last week of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield. Crosby advised Longmeadow Select Board member Marie Angelides, who asked about when to start a discussion, to approach the developers now.

Bissonnette said he has met with representatives of MGM Resorts International concerning the state required environmental reports for the casinos and said it's a "jumping off point" for other discussions.

For Bissonnette, traffic is a principal concern as he said the two Springfield casinos as well as the West Springfield one would affect the Chicopee turnpike exchange at Burnett Road and Interstate 291.

He is concerned about how many casino-related trips will be generated daily at that intersection.

"With thousands of car trips a day, you're going to have issues," the mayor said.

His approach would be to treat the casinos as if they were a developer coming to Chicopee and involve all of the city departments to look for "red flags."

He added that he might wait for the serious negotiations until the license is granted.

Bissonnette's additional concerns include possible increases in driving under the influence incidents and property crimes, although he noted the research he has seen is not conclusive.

Whether or not a casino draws people to the area as employees and where they live is another issue, Bissonnette explained. More residents could make a difference in a city's schools.

"There are a lot of things still in play," Bissonnette said. "We'll be prepared."

Morse said he has begun working Holyoke's Law Department on the mitigation issue. He said the internal discussions begun when the mayor was considering Holyoke as a possible site for a casino.

Morse stressed he still believes the casino issue isn't about one city, but is about the regional as whole. His priority is to protect Holyoke's interests.

He added that he is waiting for the Gaming Commission to establish the guidelines defining exactly what are the surrounding communities.

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