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Palmer pins hopes on casino

PALMER - In front of a shuttered market on a lonely Main Street, Tiffany Beaudoin recalled better days, when residents of this battered town made a good living in the factories, when downtown shops and restaurants thrived. There was a movie theater, she said, right over there by the train tracks.

The factories are long gone. The theater is now a parking lot.

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Looking at the distant wooded hill where local officials hope to see a half-billion-dollar resort casino, Beaudoin spoke for her town: “Bring it,’’ she said. “There are no jobs here, not anymore. We need this, sooner the better.’’

Like perhaps no other town in Massachusetts, Palmer has pinned its hopes on a casino as an economic savior that could reverse years of decline and usher in a new day. Residents have celebrated the possibilities as lawmakers welcomed casino gambling into Massachusetts, ending years of debate and setting off a fierce competition for licenses.

Palmer’s affection for a local casino is decidedly mutual. Mohegan Sun planted its flag in the town of 12,000 several years ago, opening a storefront office to woo residents and eyeing 150 acres of undeveloped land just off the Massachusetts Turnpike as a prime location to draw people from every direction.

“That location, right off the highway, is pretty amazing,’’ said Mitchell Etess, chief executive of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which will vie with a number of competitors for the right to build in Western Massachusetts.

Under the new law, casinos must win the approval of local voters, and company officials have aggressively built local support, glad-handing residents at local events and trumpeting the economic benefits of casinos at every turn.

‘There are no jobs here, not anymore. We need this, sooner the better.’

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In the window of the company’s Main Street storefront, which opened two years ago, a pair of plush, high-backed chairs are set before a formal dinner table, where a sign reads: “This table is reserved for you at Mohegan Sun.’’ Shopping bags from Coach and Godiva sit nearby, a hint of purchases to come.

On the floor above hangs a sign that many residents take as a more pointed endorsement, reading “Office Space Available.’’

Polls here have shown clear support for a casino, and on any given day residents offer robust hopes that one will come soon. The hopes have little to do with enthusiasm for any glitz or entertainment a casino might bring; they spring from a sense that it may be the town’s best, and last, chance to turn things around.

“Something has to happen around here,’’ said Jo-Anne Galavotti, who has owned a dance studio downtown for more than three decades. “It just has to.’’

Like many others in town, Galavotti is well aware of problems a casino might bring. Residents worry that traffic will be a nightmare, and that it could spawn gambling addictions and temptations to spend for those who can least affort it. But that already happens every day, they counter, at the scratch ticket counters. They also realize that casinos are largely self-contained, and that many visitors may never venture out to spend at local businesses. Still, the thinking goes, the jobs it would likely offer would be worth it.

Others say a big casino in the middle of a small town is a recipe for disaster. “It will be horrendous,’’ said Cheryl Santucci, who lives in nearby Brimfield. Santucci said the casino would cause lengthy traffic backups and that the company is exaggerating the economic benefits.

Business and town leaders, anticipating incentives offered by a casino developer and cash from a jump-started economy, are already imagining a sparkling rejuvenated city - a refreshed downtown with trolleys running to the casino and new restaurants springing up to cater to visitors. A new museum could chronicle the town’s storied railroad history. Such visions have inspired widespread hopes of a town returned to a former prosperity, and respectability.

“It would put Palmer back on the map,’’ Galavotti said.

Mohegan Sun’s pitch includes a luxury hotel and shops and restaurants, creating more than 1,000 construction jobs, all promised to union labor, and as many as 3,000 permanent jobs.

In addition, the casino would spend hundreds of millions on a range of goods and services, a huge stimulus to area businesses.

It could also generate some $9 million annually in property taxes, and millions more in local subsidies. “We’ve lost thousands of manufacturing jobs in the last 30 years,’’ said Paul Burns, president of the town council. “This could be a huge catalyst for economic development.’’

Burns said he hopes to negotiate additional payments from the casino, such as slot machine fees, as the process moves along.

Burns, who has lived in town nearly 40 years, said company after company has moved out of town, creating a void in the local economy. He is hopeful that Mohegan Sun’s early commitment to the town, and the town’s support, will give the plan a decisive edge.

“I think it does give them a leg up,’’ he said. “The work has been done here. We’re ready to hit the ground running.’’

A gambling commission created under the law will decide which casinos receive licenses, and competition for the western regional license - one of three to be granted - is keen.

That has many residents nervous. They have waited for a casino for years, have heard again and again about the jobs and economic boost it would bring. The idea that it might not happen, that another town would get the benefits, seems cruel.

“We’ve seen so many jobs leave,’’ said Jennifer Baruffaldi, a spokeswoman for a pro-casino citizens group. “Here’s a chance to bring some of them back.’’

On Main Street on a recent day, a gray-bearded man named Brian said he and his wife go to Mohegan Sun once a year, typically spending about $200 on the slots. Losing, to be more accurate. He says he always stops himself at $200 - but lots of people don’t.

“They’re looking for big money, fast,’’ he said. “Towns are, too.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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