Divided Town Awaits Casino Vote Recount

Nov 12, 2013

The town clerk in Palmer, Massachusetts is expected to announce this week the date for a recount of the votes cast in the November 5th referendum on Mohegan Sun’s $1 billion casino proposal.  The Connecticut-based casino operator late last week filed the necessary paperwork to obtain a recount of the referendum it lost by fewer than 100 votes.

An artist's rendering of Mohegan Sun's proposed casino in Palmer Massachusetts. Voters rejected the project on November 5th 2657-2564. A recount is expected
Credit Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority

No matter how the recount turns out, the referendum exposed a deep fissure on the casino issue in Palmer that had not been visible through rounds of public opinion polling and non-binding referenda that had shown strong consistent support for a casino in the town of 12,000 people.

As she held a sign urging a“no” vote outside a polling place a week ago, Cheryl Kirk lamented what the casino issue had done to Palmer.

Kirk, who has lived with her husband in Palmer for 11 years, said she had not lost any friends as a result of the casino fight, and she hopes when the dust eventually settles any lingering hard feelings will be forgotten.

Iris Cardin, a lifelong resident of Palmer, is co-chair of Quaboag Valley Against Casinos. She said her active opposition to the casino project did cost her friendships.  She said the two sides need to simply agree to disagree and move on.

Peoples’ perceptions of Palmer appear to influence their stand on the casino. Opponents often described Palmer as a quiet New England town that would be harmed by the presence of a large casino with two hotels and a water-theme park. 

Billy Byrnes and other supporters of the casino project see Palmer as a once-thriving, but now dying former mill town desperate for the thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue the casino would have provided.

Mohegan Sun gambled big on what now appears to be a losing hand in Palmer.  In an interview just hours before the polls closed last Tuesday, Mohegan Sun CEO Mitchell Etess confirmed the company had spent millions to lease land for the project, draw up plans, do environmental and traffic studies and marketing.

Mohegan Sun planted its flag in Palmer as a location for a western Massachusetts casino project four years before Massachusetts legalized casino gambling in 2011.

In crafting the casino law, the Massachusetts legislature tried to assure that a casino could not be located in a community that does not want it.  Approval by a binding voter referendum is a prerequisite for a casino company to submit a final application for a license to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

The commission has said it will consider the margin of approval in the local referenda when deciding whether to award a casino license. That would not appear to bode well for Mohegan Sun if it were to gain a narrow win as a result of a recount.

MGM Resorts, which is the only gaming company to win a casino referendum in western Massachusetts, had its project endorsed by Springfield voters 58 percent to 42 percent.