Mohegan Sun plans to ask for a recount of Tuesday’s referendum in Palmer where voters by a narrow margin rejected the company’s plans for a $1 billion resort casino. If the results stand, it will leave MGM in Springfield as the only company left to apply for the lone casino license available in western Massachusetts.
The casino referendum was defeated by a vote of 2,657 to 2,564—a margin of 93 votes—according to final, but unofficial, results announced Tuesday night by the Palmer Town Clerk’s office. Turnout was an astounding 66 percent of the town’s registered voters.
The defeat of the casino referendum in Palmer was stunning for several reasons. Connecticut-based Mohegan Sun had been cultivating a project in Palmer since 2007—four years before Massachusetts moved to legalize casinos and develop a gaming industry. Polling, and a non-binding voter referendum several years ago, had shown strong and consistent support for a casino in the town.
The casino company, with hired experienced political hands, directed a referendum campaign out of the Main Street storefront office it opened three-and-a-half years ago. But the multimillion dollar marketing effort ran into a grassroots group called Quaboag Valley Against Casinos. Co-president Charlotte Burns said they made the case that the big casino with two hotels and a water park would destroy the character of the rural town of 12,000 people.
On the sidewalk in front of the casino opponents’ small storefront headquarters, people cried tears of joy and hugged each other after the vote totals were announced. Karen Les said she was overjoyed.
But the celebrating may have been premature. Mohegan Sun CEO Mitchell Etess, about 90 minutes after the polls closed, announced the company would seek a recount.
Etess cited reports of irregularities with a vote-counting machine at one of the town’s four precincts.
Kevin Conroy, a lawyer for Mohegan, said the company’s observers in Precinct 2 reported that a voting machine appeared to jam briefly and some ballots fell on the floor. The precinct was where the casino project fared the worst, losing 836-591
Mohegan Sun proposed to build the resort casino on more than 150 acres of a wooded hillside opposite an interchange with the Massachusetts Turnpike. An agreement negotiated with town officials last summer pledged annual payments to Palmer of $15 million—an amount greater than what the town currently collects in property taxes.
Casino supporters underscored the 3,000 jobs the gambling resort committed to bring to the town, which had seen thousands of jobs eliminated as mills closed through the end of the last century. Jennifer Baruffaldi, a spokesperson for two pro-casino groups in Palmer, has been trying to bring a casino to the town since the late 1990s. She said she was devastated by the referendum’s defeat.
Project approval by local voters is a prerequisite for a company to file a final application with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission for a casino license.
Voters in Springfield approved MGM’s $800 million casino proposal in July by 58-42 percent.
West Springfield voters in September turned down a casino proposed by Hard Rock International.
MGM has yet to pass a background investigation that looks into the ethics of the company’s key officials and the company’s finances. If the gaming commission determines MGM is suitable to hold a license in Massachusetts the company can file a final application for the Springfield project by the end of December.
State law permits just one casino license in the four western counties.