PALMER - “Oh my God, does Palmer need this casino,’’ says Chet Sears, sitting at the counter at the Day and Night diner. “It needs something. It seems like the town is dead.’’
The 65-year-old retired Turnpike worker, like everyone else in town, can rattle off the names of the lost factories like a mantra: Otis textiles, Cascades Diamond, Jarvis & Jarvis, Tambrands. This blue-collar town gave itself over to manufacturing long ago, embracing the factories that wore at its rural character. Bucolic doesn’t pay the bills. But the big plants left, taking thousands of good jobs with them. Palmer, 75 miles west of Boston, is hurting: Windows on Main Street are papered over, houses are faded, parents worry kids will grow up and leave forever.
It’s hard to rail, as I have, against the long-term costs of casinos - more gambling addictions and crime, throttled local businesses - when faced with actual people and their dim prospects. The recession was a gift for casino moguls and their Beacon Hill friends, and towns like Palmer are their Shangri-Las.
The air here is thick with loss and longing. This is no Foxborough, where selectmen recently voted against a casino proposal. Or Boston, where the mayor wants to avoid a citywide vote on a casino at Suffolk Downs because he knows voters might well reject it. There are casino opponents here, and in surrounding towns, but many residents seem convinced Mohegan Sun will bring back Palmer’s glory days.
Of course, Mohegan Sun helped make this so. They set up in a storefront on Main Street three years ago to build community support. Its windows beckon locals to see Ke$ha in Connecticut, and to imagine a gleaming, $600 million palace right here, just off the Turnpike at Exit 8.
An empty magnum of chardonnay sits on a table flanked by two chairs and a sign that reads, “This table is reserved for you at Mohegan Sun.’’ The frowsy tableau is more Miss Havisham than high-roller, but the soft sell has worked with officials like Town Councilor Karl Williams, who owns the Day and Night.
“You betcha, I’m totally for it, most everybody in town is,’’ he says, standing by the grill at his rose-walled diner. “This will give young people a reason to stay around. People say they’re low-paying jobs, but you gotta start somewhere.’’
Along with enthusiasm, casino anxiety grips Palmer: Locals fret that it won’t happen here. Blake Lamothe, proprietor of the Steaming Tender restaurant at the old rail depot, has long been a casino booster. You’d think he would stand to lose if a Mohegan Sun brought monster buffets to Palmer, but Lamothe bats such concerns away. He’s got big plans, for a railroad-themed recreation center, and for a parking lot and trolley that would serve the casino. However, he does worry about whether the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, whose debts total $1.6 billion, has the scratch to deliver.
“We have an opportunity to put the town back together here,’’ he says. “Mohegan Sun needs to show us they’ve got all their cards. . . . If they don’t have the financial strength, don’t hold Palmer hostage.’’
Mohegan Sun has all its cards, says Paul Brody, vice president of development. “We have a lot of money in this project already,’’ he says. “We wouldn’t be spending millions more if we weren’t highly confident the economics would work.’’
Even so, rival casino companies are now courting nearby Springfield, Brimfield, and Holyoke. The idea that Mohegan Sun could lose out to one of them worries people here more than anything.
“We’re not guaranteed a casino,’’ says landscaper Carl Bryant. “My question is, what are we going to do if it doesn’t happen?’’
If anybody here had an answer, Mohegan Sun wouldn’t have come to Palmer in the first place.