Clarence Fanto: Casino votes a dubious win for the region


LENOX -- Sifting through the fallout following important votes last Tuesday on casino proposals in Massachusetts and New York state, it seems we can count on only two safe bets.

First, MGM Resorts International is likely to build its $800 million resort-casino on three forlorn downtown blocks of Springfield since city voters had previously approved it. The downtrodden city is keen for an injection of economic adrenalin from the planned complex containing slot machines, table games, a hotel, retail shops, restaurants and a parking garage.

Second, New York is on a fast track for a bevy of gambling emporiums.

Competition for the Western Massachusetts gambling license faded when voters in Palmer narrowly rejected a competing proposal from the owners of Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. But the margin of defeat was so narrow -- 93 votes out of 5,200 cast -- that Mohegan Sun is seeking a recount by hand, which could come as soon as Thursday.

If the result stands, MGM has a clear field in the region and faces only a "suitability hearing" by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission later this month before it can move ahead.

Resort casinos are questionable propositions, given uncertain economic gains after they open. The negative impact on society has been well documented in northeastern Connecticut, where Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods fight for turf supremacy.

While opponents in Palmer, just off the MassPike, were right to fret about a resort casino’s impact on their relatively bucolic rural character, as an economic development project for Springfield, the MGM plan could offer a degree of economic salvation, since it would employ 2,000 construction workers and, after opening three or four years from now, 3,000 at the complex.

MGM has committed to seeking some vendors in the Berkshires and will not block entertainers from performing here before or after they’re booked at the Springfield resort.

Farther east, the proposed $1 billion Suffolk Downs casino may be a losing proposition now that voters in East Boston have defeated it, though it was approved in neighboring Revere. The project, straddling city lines, faces formidable challenges if it’s reconfigured to be built entirely in Revere. Thus, the two gambling licenses available in the Boston area and in southeastern Massachusetts remain up for grabs.

Across the state line, the floodgates are open now that New York voters have approved a constitutional amendment expanding gambling to as many as seven full-scale casinos.

The economically depressed Catskills area is hankering for a return of the glory days when tourists flocked to multiple "Borscht Belt" resorts such as Grossinger’s, the Concord, Kutsher’s, the Nevele, Brown’s Hotel and many more. Proposals to build on the sites on several of these former retreats already are on the table.

But how many casinos can the Northeast region support? Already, there are five run by Native Americans in upstate New York.

New York lawmakers are pushing four sites as priorities, all in the Catskills-Hudson Valley region, the Albany area and in the Southern Tier bordering Pennsylvania.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a cheerleader, citing job creation, a lure for tourists and a potential to keep New York gamblers who have been heading out of state close to home.

"We literally hemorrhage people from the borders who go to casinos," he told reporters last week. "I think it will keep the money in this state, and I think it’s a major economic development vehicle for the Hudson Valley especially and for upstate New York."

Religious leaders failed to persuade the state’s voters, who approved expanded gambling by a landslide -- 57 percent in favor.

Catholic bishops had warned of "the potential for negative consequences" while Larry Provenzano, the Episcopal Bishop of Long Island, cautioned that "anyone who has ever lived in a region in which casino gambling was established knows very well that gambling is not a reliable form of economic development. It is a flash in the pan Š with catastrophic social, moral and ethical consequences."

The resulting risk of gambling addiction, leading to bankruptcy and family disintegration, is being overlooked thanks to the lure of quick, easy money and the supposed boost to local economies.

If casinos are inevitable, as many advocates say, the MGM International plan for Springfield has the best chance of providing an economic revival.

Maybe so. But my visits years ago to Foxwoods (a media tour) and Mohegan Sun (for a concert) remain among the most depressing experiences I can recall.

"Luck be a lady tonight," as Frank Loesser wrote in "Guys and Dolls." While seconding that emotion, I fear it will take much more than good fortune for the rosy promises of the gambling casino developers and their supporters to come up aces.

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