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In Brimfield, a soft-sell on casino

MGM vows to protect rural character

BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF

Landowner David Callahan showed reporters yesterday the site where he wants MGM to build a resort casino. He has spent three months selling the proposal to Brimfield residents.

BRIMFIELD - The wooded valley in which MGM Resorts International wants to build a Western Massachusetts casino spreads out below a high bluff, at the end of a steep muddy road through the woods, where isolation is the chief selling point.

Landowner David Callahan brought reporters to view the land yesterday in a caravan of sport utility vehicles, another stop in his slow and meticulous campaign to persuade the people of Brimfield that they really can have it all: the character of a small town and a slice of the Las Vegas strip.

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Top executives from MGM, one of the largest casino companies in the world, were in tiny Brimfield yesterday, promising to invest “north of $600 million’’ to build a destination casino - working name, the Rolling Hills Resort - on a remote, 150-acre parcel adjacent to the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Brimfield, population about 3,500, is currently best known for its outdoor antique fairs, held three times a year.

The MGM facility would directly produce about 3,000 permanent jobs, and indirectly generate thousand more, MGM chairman and chief executive James J. Murren promised at a press conference yesterday. Several thousand construction jobs would be created during the 30-to-36-month construction period, he said. MGM runs a number of high-profile Las Vegas resorts, including the Bellagio, featured in the 2001 movie “Ocean’s Eleven,’’ the pyramid-shaped Luxor, and Mandalay Bay.

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For Callahan, the announcement followed three months of preparation, as he slowly unfurled the notion of putting a casino on his land.

He floated the idea at a public meeting of the Board of Selectmen in October and spent the next several months meeting with town boards, department heads, and key members of the community “to get their ideas, what they would desire in the project, and the things they didn’t want to see,’’ he said.

The soft-sell in Brimfield contrasts with the Wynn Resorts proposal in Foxborough, which shocked much of the town when residents learned of it in early December. Opponents began organizing in Foxborough almost immediately; public meetings on the topic consistently draw hundreds of angry residents.

In doing his research in Brimfield, Callahan heard one worry repeatedly: traffic.

In response, MGM pledged yesterday that if the project is approved by the state and by town voters, the casino would be sequestered in the woods, with no access over the town’s roads, except for emergency vehicles. Visitors would arrive by way of a new exit from the turnpike, even visitors who live in town.

Developers conceded yesterday that winning approval of a new highway exit, which is key to their proposal, would be a lengthy process that they plan to initiate soon.

This traffic concession eased the main concern of Brimfield resident Tony Bys, 60, a retired postal worker who works part time for the town.

“If we were going to get X amount of dollars, but we would have to deal with traffic,’’ then a casino would not be worth the hassle, said Bys. “If it’s done the way they say it will be, then I don’t have a problem with it.’’

MGM opened a business office in Brimfield yesterday. MGM chief marketing officer Bill Hornbuckle will lead the effort in Brimfield. He said he expects to be in town frequently during the application process.

Company executives met privately yesterday with town officials and prominent Brimfield residents and then took questions from reporters.

Murren addressed a decision by MGM to agree to sell its share of the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City because New Jersey casino regulators were uncomfortable with MGM’s relationship with Hong Kong businesswoman Pansy Ho, whose father is alleged to have ties to organized crime. MGM joined with Ho to develop a casino in Macau and elected to sell its share of the New Jersey property, rather than end the relationship with Ho.

He said MGM disagrees with the findings of the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.

“The DGE acknowledges itself they have no evidence whatsoever that Pansy Ho engaged in any wrongdoing,’’ said Murren. “Since we have been her partner she has been nothing but an appropriate partner, and she has a sterling operating record since we opened up that resort.

“No other state has ever found issue whatsoever with out partnership,’’ he added. “It’s an issue we’re very happy to address with the Commonwealth.’’

To win the sole development rights for a casino, MGM will have to beat out a crowded field of competitors. Operators of the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut are proposing a resort in Palmer, while Ameristar Casinos wants to build in Springfield. And Hard Rock International has been eyeing Holyoke.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.
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