Palmer is a straight shot from Boston on the turnpike. When the traffic is moving, it takes just over an hour to get there. But these days, there’s no reason for most people to stop in this semi-rural town. At the turn of the 20th century, it was a thriving mill town connected by rail to Boston and New York. Even a couple decades ago, it had good manufacturing jobs. Palmer resident Robert Young says those days are gone.
Young thinks a casino would change the fortunes of Palmer for the better. On this night, he and about a dozen other residents are meeting at a bar in the center of town. It’s hard to pick them out of the crowd; with their Red Sox caps - they blend in with the other clientele. But they’re not talking baseball - they’re strategizing about how to grow their numbers and get heard on Beacon Hill. They call themselves Citizens for Jobs and Growth in Palmer.
Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, another group is meeting on the 2nd floor of the old historic brick School House. They’ve opened all the windows to air out the stuffy room.This is The Quabog Valley Against Casinos - a decidedly more conventional meeting. About ten residents of Palmer and surrounding towns sit in a circle and take minutes. About half of the group is from towns outside of Palmer. President EmmaLadd Shepherd is from the neighboring town of Monson, which is also the home of the state’s most prominent casino opponent – Kathleen Norbutt.
A couple weeks earlier at a restaurant in Monson, Shepherd says neighboring towns have reason to worry. One need only look at the towns near Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut to see that resort casinos are bad for local businesses.
Shepherd and her group have been pushing for an unbiased study of casino gambling in the state. But Paul Burns, President of the Palmer Town Council, says there have already been enough studies. Palmer did its own study, as did a Western Regional Task Force; Burns says those studies show the tax revenues and the jobs would outweigh the costs. He says it’s time to act, and he’s hoping lawmakers include Palmer in their plans.
The Connecticut-based casino giant Mohegan Sun has already spent over a million dollars sizing up Palmer as a potential site. Even though Mohegan is a Native American company, the proposed casino would be a private development because it would not be on tribal land. Mohegan has set up a big storefront on Main Street, though they have very little to fill it. It’s really just a desk and some chairs.. with a prominent diagram of the proposed casino. The storefront open three days a week to answer citizen questions. Vice President of Development Paul Brody says they chose Palmer because it has a lot of things going for it.
They also chose Palmer for its highway connections, the potential business from the surrounding region.. and the labor market. Brody says most people who come to the storefront ask about jobs. Palmer’s unemployment is currently over 12 percent….but Mohegan is also looking down the road at the urban center of Western Mass.
Even with the promise of jobs, not everyone in Springfield welcomes a resort casino so close to home. Cindy Anzalotti is the President of Symphony Hall and City Stage in Springfield. She says Mohegan’s proposed theater in Palmer would pose an immediate threat to the arts and all the surrounding businesses. Anzalotti says her organization and other theaters in the state are pushing for legislation that will protect arts organizations.
Mohegan Sun’s Paul Brody acknowledges concerns about impacts on local businesses. He says the potential negative impacts of a casino are detailed and mitigated in their proposal. He says it’s up to the community and the state government to decide what’s best.
All eyes in Western Mass. are now looking eastward to see what will be decided. If Palmer doesn’t get its casino, Robert Young says at least it’s made people pay attention, but Young also admits that the proposed casino could be Palmer’s best and only chance to be a flourishing town once again.