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Milford group organizes to oppose casino

Milford residents ready to fight a planned casino in their community met last week with people from Holliston and Hopkinton who have been organizing against the proposal for the past year.

The message from those already working on defeating the proposed $850 million “destination casino” on vacant land off Interstate 495, northwest of Route 16, was loud and clear: It’s Milford’s time to be heard.

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Some in the fledgling group of about 12 people from Milford said the small number who showed up at the informal meeting belies the opposition the proposal will face.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and I’m ready to fight, and so are a lot of other people,” said Elaine Pagucci, who lives about a mile from the proposed casino site.

Milford resident Jim Flanagan, who said he lives five houses from where the casino is being proposed, is also on board.

“This is a residential neighborhood; it’s just not the place for it,” he said.

Colorado developer David Nunes and his company, Crossroads Massachusetts LLC, met the state’s Jan. 17 deadline for filing an application — accompanied by the $400,000 fee — with minutes to spare, setting into motion a process that will determine whether his proposal will be selected by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to receive the single resort casino license reserved for Eastern Massachusetts.

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The Milford proposal is competing against applications from Suffolk Downs, in partnership with Caesars Entertainment, in East Boston and Revere, and from Wynn Resorts, founded by Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn, who is looking at industrial land in Everett.

In Milford, casino proponents say there could be significant advantages to allowing the proposal, including an estimated $8 million to $10 million in annual tax revenue and the creation of hundreds of jobs. Proponents also say the project would attract people to the area who would patronize already established businesses.

Barry Feingold, president and chief executive of the Milford Area Chamber of Commerce, said he is excited by the potential boost to the region’s economic development from an $800 million investment in the community.

But, he said, it is way too early in the process to take a firm position on whether the pros will outweigh the cons.

“It’s going to be up to the people of Milford, and I think their sentiments right now mirror that of the Board of Selectmen, which is that we really need to get more information before we can make a decision on this,” said Feingold, who did not attend last week’s meeting.

He said his sense, as someone who speaks with business leaders and residents every day, is that the people of Milford are pretty evenly divided on the project.

“I talk to people on both sides,” he said.

Feingold said the proposed access ramp linking Interstate 495 with the casino site is a must before the project could get his endorsement, and the resort’s effect on town services will have to be weighed against the jobs and revenue that would come into the area.

“This is a huge project, there will certainly be hundreds of people hired just to build it,” he said.

Opponents at last week’s meeting said they plan to mobilize to defeat it at the polls.

“Milford is the host community; Milford has to say no,” said John Seaver, a lifelong town resident and former member of the Board of Selectmen. “Area towns need to support the effort, but the focus and the face of the opposition now needs to be Milford.”

While work has been done behind the scenes by a Holliston-based group, Casino-Free Milford, including setting up a website and Facebook page, gathering e-mail contacts, and organizing a petition drive, it was hoped the effort would be unnecessary.

But the last-minute decision by Nunes to move forward with his plans means those opposed have about eight months to prepare before a townwide vote in Milford could be held to decide the project’s fate.

“Nothing was serious until Nunes spent the $400,000,’’ Holliston Selectman John D. Leary Jr. told last week’s gathering. “Now is the time to get the organization started. We’re here to give the people of Milford the help they need, but you don’t have a month, you need to get started with weekly meetings.”

Milford’s Board of Selectmen could end the project before it even gets to a town vote, as was the case in Foxborough, where selectmen voted against entering into negotiations with Wynn, who with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft had proposed building a casino on land across Route 1 from Gillette Stadium.

But Milford Selectman Brian W. Murray, the board’s chairman, who attended but did not speak at the informal meeting, said it is too early to make any decisions on whether the plan should move forward.

“That’s a premature question, because there is no proposal before the town,” he said.

Murray said he is still waiting to see whether Nunes will pass the first phase of the process, which is a check of his finances and background.

“We haven’t been presented any financial information," he said. “There’s nothing there yet, it’s basically just gathering information.”

The Milford residents and those from neighboring towns at the meeting are not counting on selectmen to stop the project. Instead, they say, they are ready to sway voters.

“The most important thing is not the selectmen,” Seaver said. “We need to keep the focus on the referendum and the five or six thousand voters who will decide this.”

Seaver said he will be a part of a core group that will meet biweekly to organize against the proposal, building grass-roots support through e-mail chains and by word of mouth, preparing for what he thinks will be an eventual vote on a proposal next fall.

He said fund-raising will be done to purchase more lawn signs, produce fliers, and buy advertisements, but utilizing social media and old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning will be the focus.

“This is not about whether or not you are pro or con gambling; that horse is out of the barn,” said Holliston resident John Vosburg, land manager for the New England Mountain Bike Association, which owns land next to the proposed casino site. “This is about the location, and speaking with a common voice saying that this isn’t the place for a casino.”

Arguments against the proposal will likely focus on the proposed site’s location in the middle of a neighborhood of single-family homes, a casino’s effect on local property values, traffic, and ground water, and its toll on police and fire departments, schools, and other town services.

“Everyone assumes [the license] will go to Boston, but we have to hope for the best and plan for the worst,” Ken Rockett, a spokesman for Casino-Free Milford, told the meeting. “We’re here tonight to plan for the worst.’’

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.

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