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Better-off suburbs spurn call of casinos

Hard Rock International’s failure Tuesday to win the favor of West Springfield voters underscored a hard political lesson: With few exceptions, the Bay State’s relatively affluent suburbs are hostile territory for the gambling industry.

Since the state legalized Las Vegas-style casinos in 2011, cash-flushed developers promising jobs and millions of dollars in benefits have been bum-rushed out of town by Foxborough, Boxborough, Millbury, Tewksbury, and Salisbury. Freetown and Lakeville emphatically joined the anti-casino chorus in nonbinding referenda.

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What almost all of these places have in common is a more affluent population.

Estimated median household income among those anticasino communities averages about $75,000, according to the demographic website city-data.com, compared with a statewide average of about $63,000 in 2011.

Among the communities in which voters have approved casinos or slot parlors — Everett, Springfield, Plainville, Raynham, and a nonbinding vote in Taunton — median household income averages about $55,500.

“There is a high negative correlation between the community’s wealth and whether they are going to approve a casino,” said the Rev. Richard McGowan, a Boston College professor and casino expert.

The key election issue in each municipality, McGowan said, has been jobs: Casinos tend to win where the prospect of casino jobs resonates with voters.

‘What we’re seeing is hog-strapped cities and towns going for that economic development.’

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Residents have yet to decide pending casino referenda in Milford, East Boston, Revere, Leominster, and Palmer. Estimated median household income in those communities is below the state average, according to city-data.com.

“It’s the reverse of what Governor Patrick first suggested, that casinos should be rural destinations,” said Springfield political strategist Anthony Cignoli. “What we’re seeing is hog-strapped cities and towns going for that economic development. They’re saying, it might not be Microsoft or Ford Motor Company coming to town, but if it’s MGM? We’ll take it.”

MGM has proposed a casino in downtown Springfield, just a few minutes’ drive over the Connecticut River from West Springfield, where Hard Rock pitched its resort. Unlike their neighbors across the river, Springfield voters have strongly endorsed the MGM plan, 58 percent to 42 percent, at a citywide referendum.

“The need for jobs is much greater in Springfield than in West Side,” said Cignoli, using the regional nickname for West Springfield.

Hard Rock, which had planned to build on land leased from the Eastern States Exposition, home of the Big E fair, seemed to take nothing for granted in the West Springfield referendum, spending nearly $1 million on a well-organized political campaign in support of its proposal, including a sophisticated get-out-the vote effort. The company had signed a deal with the city promising to pay at least $18 million annually to West Springfield, as well as tens of millions more in up-front payments for city services and road improvements.

For people who know West Springfield only from sitting in traffic on the way to the Big E, much of the community outside the commercial zones is green and rural, with upscale neighborhoods. Under-funded casino opponents defeated Hard Rock by focusing on whether a casino would threaten that rural character, said Cignoli.

The vote was 55 percent against Hard Rock, 45 percent in favor. Turnout was about 45 percent.

Eastern States Exposition president Eugene J. Cassidy said Hard Rock representatives took the defeat hard. “They were crushed,” he said. “Their staff was in tears.”

As a whole, West Springfield is an outlier among the anticasino communities, with a median income below the state average. But within the city, Cassidy said, the jobs issue seemed to define the election. “Many of the activists on the ‘no’ side were from the upscale side of town,” he said. “They already have jobs.”

West Springfield is also historically resistant to change, which casino opponents exploited with “fear mongering” about the gambling industry, Cassidy said. “Hard Rock is about so much more than gaming, but that message didn’t get out enough.”

Nathan Bech, a West Springfield resident who led the anti-casino campaign, said the city simply never believed it needed Hard Rock.

“We have good parks and schools and tree-lined streets,” he said. “We’re not in any desperate need of any kind of bailout or influx of cash.”

West Springfield is the first Bay State community to defeat a casino at a public referendum under the state casino law. Other communities have stonewalled projects at town meeting or through the votes of local selectmen. Opposition was strong enough in Millbury to kill a Rush Street Gaming slot parlor proposal without a vote — the developer withdrew the project three weeks ahead of a planned referendum this month, citing a lack of support. Freetown and Lakeville residents declared their opposition last year to a gambling proposal from the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah, in nonbinding votes requested by the tribe.

Foxborough in 2012 blocked a Wynn Resorts casino plan by electing anticasino candidates to the Board of Selectmen, which persuaded Wynn to give up.

“There are certain communities that are just not going to vote for it,” said McGowan. “And Foxborough is the classic case. Notice what Wynn did. He went to a much poorer community, Everett, where he won the vote because of [a promise to create] jobs there.”

Urban areas in Massachusetts have also blocked casinos, though not at the ballot box. Worcester officials could not reach an agreement with Rush Street Gaming, and negotiations broke down.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse pushed an earlier Hard Rock proposal out of his city after he was elected on an anticasino platform. He changed his mind and invited casino developers to make proposals, only to push them out again.

Plainville and Raynham are potential exceptions to the statewide trends, as casino-supporting suburban towns with above-average wealth. But voters in those communities endorsed slot parlor plans at existing race betting parlors, Plainridge Racecourse and Raynham Park.

Those facilities have worked many years to build local support to add slots.

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