Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Down the road, a furor's brewing

On Tuesday, the Palmer Town Council voted to approve a “host community agreement” with Mohegan Sun for a potential casino off the Mass Pike there. It's a big deal – a $15.2 million initial payment plus about $13.2 million a year plus upgrades to town infrastructure the report claims will benefit residents to varying degrees plus a small percentage of the “gross gaming revenue.”
Sounds great, right? Wish it were here?
Nope. To me, having a casino in any town of Palmer's or Southbridge's size means essentially surrendering the community to all of the downsides of a one-company town with few of the benefits. Unlike major cities, where there's enough other economic activity to keep things moving, small towns can't support an entity that's so disproportionately big.
In theory, it provides jobs and tax money, but the reality is that happens at the expense of strangling the other businesses in town. That's twofold: because the casino is not locally-owned, almost all of its profits go elsewhere, and it has no reason to promote other businesses in town. It's essentially a self-contained $1 billion mini-city, with multiple retail stores, restaurants, a hotel, theater and even a water park as part of the plans. 
The whole point of a casino is to trap you inside until you run out of money, and this one will have its own Pike exit to eliminate even the need to drive by those local businesses en route. You don't visit what you never see.
Palmer's agreement refers to something called a “Players' Club Card Program” by which casino patrons get “redemption opportunities” at local non-casino businesses – whatever that means. Can they redeem the mortgage payments and kids' college funds they just squandered? I doubt it. If more than a handful of people actually use it and local businesses get anything from it, I'd be very surprised. It smells of pure propaganda, with the casino knowing it'll pay out next to nothing, but then be able to blame the players.
At their best, the historic mill towns were the polar opposite. Although one company often dominated and some were abusive, the owners typically actually lived in town, frequented the other businesses, participated in town affairs, and otherwise had a vested interest in ensuring the community thrived. As in Southbridge, they're often buried in the towns they had a hand in building, even though they also got far richer than the average person.
Those towns, in fact, typically “went south” when the company was sold to some outsider, usually a faceless, soulless corporation. In Southbridge, such a sale eventually led to American Optical (AO, or the "hey-ho" to locals) being sold off piecemeal, some parts moving out of state, some simply disintegrating, but all leaving a giant gap that still hasn't been filled in the town's psyche.
With casinos, the soulless corporation starts the process, and things go downhill from there. Sure, there will probably be an initial rush of cash and some noticeable town projects getting done that have been needed for years. $15 million is a huge chunk of most town's budgets -- In Palmer, it's HALF of what the town spends in a year, and nearly equals its annual tax collection.
I can hear some people cheering, since that would theoretically all but eliminate everyone else's taxes or the town's need for state aid. Maybe, but at what cost? History is laden with examples of huge financial windfalls corrupting communities and/or resulting in the “benefactor” eventually taking off the smiling face and effectively taking over the town for its own benefit. Giant sums of money are extremely hazardous to healthy democracies and tend to undermine the more general sense of community, especially when they're in the hands of one person or company, and doubly so when that firm's profits go elsewhere.
People in Southbridge still cast a wary eye on Casella because of the fiscal impact from the annual landfill royalties (among other things), and that sum is FAR less than Mohegan Sun's would be. While I imagine few Palmerites will even see this column, I hope they consider these points and reject the host agreement – and the casino itself – when their chance to vote comes.

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