|By Chris Maza|
WILBRAHAM – Selectman Robert Russell reported to the board his takeaways from a recent meeting between potential surrounding communities and Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) Ombudsman John Ziemba, which was sponsored recently by Springfield City Council President James Ferrera III.
Russell said Ziemba was there specifically to explain the procedures for implementing surrounding community agreements, a required step for casinos in preparing their applications for the MGC, and to outline resources at towns’ disposal provided by the MGC.
He observed that almost all of the surrounding communities that would be affected by a downtown Springfield casino were present and while all had some common concerns, each town also had unique perspectives.
“Traffic, for example, was a very common concern,” he said. “But sewer flows, for example, are a different story for communities, depending on whether or not they have their own treatment center.”
Russell also said one thing he learned that he was not aware of prior was 6 percent of the application fee collected by the MGC from potential casino developers goes directly into a fund earmarked for mitigation expenses.
“What I don’t know is who gets a voice in how that money is used and where it is distributed,” he said.
Russell said he made three major points regarding Wilbraham’s concerns to Ziemba.
“First, I said that I acknowledge that each town will do what’s best for themselves,” he said. “In our case, regardless of where a casino is located, whether in Springfield or Palmer, we’re going to get a neighbor and Wilbraham is unique in that fact.”
Russell also said he voiced concerns that “the process was a little truncated.”
“We have to make a very quick decision,” he said. “We’re dealing with people who do this day in and day out, but we have to make a decision once and then we have to live with it.”
Board of Selectmen Chair James Thompson concurred with that observation.
“The host communities have had months and months to negotiate with the casinos,” he said, specifically referring to the fact that Palmer just recently reached a host community agreement with Mohegan Sun. “Then we have a short timetable in which to make very important decisions.”
Selectman Robert Boilard pointed out that while the town has at least had some level of discussion with MGM, he is concerned about the lack of communication from Mohegan Sun.
Russell also said he was concerned about what a casino would do to small businesses throughout the area.
“Pick a restaurant within a 30 mile radius of here and this past weekend it was easy to get a table because of the Big E. Small businesses can prepare and budget for that because it’s a short period of time,” he said. “But a casino would be a constant big competitor to local businesses.”
Russell suggested having representatives from other communities in to discuss a regional approach to an economic development plan that would be designed to offset negative effects on businesses. He also said it would be a good time to pick other town officials’ brains regarding surrounding community agreements. He used Longmeadow as an example of a community whose experiences Wilbraham could benefit from as Town Manager Stephen Crane has had significant talks with MGM already.
Thompson and Boilard agreed to work on a plan to have a meeting with leaders of other communities and Boilard suggested inviting representatives from Connecticut towns that have already experienced effects of casinos.
Also addressing casino mitigation, Thompson said he, Town Administrator Robert Weitz, Department of Public Works Director Edmund Miga, Town Counsel Michael Hassett and Planning Director John Pearsall would attend a meeting hosted by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission on Sept. 26.
“This is to deal with traffic issues specific to MGM and discuss the possibility of a regional approach,” he said. “With such a short period of time to negotiate, this could be a chance to maximize our opportunity to review what has been presented by MGM.”
In other business, Russell also discussed his impressions from the two recent presentations from the Vision Task Force.
“What I take away from it is there is still a spirit of volunteerism, but there is always room for improvement with communication,” he said.
He suggested the consolidation of the calendar on the town’s website to include more community events in addition to the public meetings, which are currently included.
He also spoke of his hope to make more use of the Blackboard Connect system to better communicate with residents.
“When we were sold on this, there were a lot of features that were talked about,” he said. “I’m not sure we’re using them all.”
Thompson also took time to commend Minnechaug Regional High School Athletic Director Michael Roy and Wilbraham Police Sgt. Glen Clark for participating in the Ride to Remember sponsored by the Springfield Police Department to honor fallen officer and former Wilbraham resident Kevin Ambrose, as well as Westfield Police Officer Jose Torres.
Russell also congratulated the Minnechaug football team for getting up early that morning after beating Putnam the night before to support riders as they passed through Wilbraham on their approximately 100-mile ride to the Massachusetts Law Enforcement Memorial in Boston.
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