Mohegans eye casino in Mass.

Aug 7, 2007 4:06 AM

Casinos may not yet be legal in Massachusetts, but the town is buzzing with reports that Northeast Realty, the owner of 150 acres across from the turnpike exit, has signed an exclusivity agreement with Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut.

At-large Town Councilor George A. Backus said he supports a casino in Palmer, and hopes the state legalizes casinos.

"I’ve been a taxpayer for a long time and I can see where things are going," Backus said last week.

Lawyer Frank P. Fitzgerald, who represents Leon H. Dragone, manager of Northeast Realty, said that Mohegan Sun will assist with an economic development project at the site off Thorndike Street (Route 32). The agreement with Mohegan was signed last week to "exclusively pursue the planning and development of a gaming-related, multi-use entertainment project at the site," Fitzgerald said.

He said Northeast also is still working with Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, a national real estate trust, on retail, housing and office possibilities for the site.

Gov. Deval L. Patrick has said he will announce his decision on casinos before Labor Day. Patrick last week received a report on the pros and cons of casinos from Daniel O’Connell, secretary of the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. O’Connell led a task force on the issue.

Town meeting voters in Middleboro on Saturday approved a proposal by the Wampanoag Tribe of Mashpee to open a $1 billion casino in that community.

Fitzgerald said given the possibility that gaming may be legalized, the relationship with Mohegan Sun was formed "so the planning process can start." This would be a commercial casino, not a tribal casino, he said.

"Northeast originally started out with the sole prospect of developing a gaming venue," Fitzgerald said. "If gaming does become a reality, it could be a significant development project in our region."

Mitchell G. Etess, chief executive officer of Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, confirmed an agreement has been signed to assist Northeast with the master planning of the proposed project. Etess said this could open up opportunities for Mohegan in Massachusetts.

"We have destination marketing expertise and gaming expertise," Etess said on Wednesday. "I think we have a lot of knowledge of this region and experience in this type of business and we’re very good at what we do."

Casino gambling is a divisive issue, and town officials and residents had varying opinions on a gaming facility in Palmer. Back in 1997, 55 percent of voters supported the idea of a casino in a nonbinding referendum. Town Manager Richard L. Fitzgerald said he is curious if the town still feels the same way.

Until all the facts are known, the town manager said it is hard to determine if this is a positive or negative for Palmer. He said the possibility of lower taxes and jobs may be enticing to some Palmer residents.

"Until I hear more I will withhold my judgment," the town manager said.

Town Council Vice President Michael R. Magiera said he is concerned about the infrastructure at the site, noting traffic is already an issue.

"If, and a big if, something were to happen, the infrastructure would have to be upgraded immensely," Magiera said.

If the governor decides to support casinos, he would need to submit legislation to the state Legislature. Legislative approval would be needed for any casino proposal.

Rep. Todd M. Smola, R-Palmer, said he is keeping an open mind on casinos.

"The ultimate decision rests in the hands of the Legislature," he said.

Smola and other legislators said that casinos must benefit any host community.