Voters in West Springfield on Tuesday delivered a knockout punch to casino industry giant Hard Rock. The vote to reject an $800 million dollar casino project leaves just two competitors standing for the lone casino license that will be issued in western Massachusetts.
By a lopsided margin of 55 to 45 percent, West Springfield voters turned down a development agreement that could have seen Hard Rock build a casino, hotel, and year-round concert venue on the grounds of the Eastern States Exposition, home of the annual Big E agricultural fair.
The final vote was 4,165 against to 3,413 in favor. Voter turnout was just over 45 percent.
About two dozen casino opponents met Tuesday night on the patio of a restaurant where they hugged, high-fived, and cheered the victory in a campaign where they were outspent by a considerable sum. Hard Rock reported it spent almost $1 million on the referendum campaign. The opponents, No Casino West Springfield, spent $2,000.
Nathan Bech, the leader of the anti-casino effort, said they utilized a true grassroots approach with neighbor speaking with neighbor in the town of 30,000 people.
The anti-casino campaign highlighted concerns about traffic, social ills, and the impact the casino would have on existing businesses. Opponents successfully spread doubts about Hard Rock’s plans to mitigate the problems.
Ted Hebert, another leader of the anti-casino campaign, declared West Springfield voters had demonstrated integrity by rejecting the big money promises from the Florida-based casino operator.
This is the first time under the state’s 2011 gambling law that voters have turned down a casino project. Pastor Chuck Wimer of Jubilee Family Outreach Center in West Springfield said the vote gives hope to casino opponents in other communities.
The West Springfield vote leaves MGM and Mohegan Sun as the remaining competitors for the lone casino license available in western Massachusetts. Springfield voters in July approved plans for the MGM casino by a 58 to 42 percent margin. A referendum on Mohegan Sun’s project will be held in Palmer on November 5th.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is expected to award the western Massachusetts casino license by April 2014.
Hard Rock had explored several possible locations for a casino development in Massachusetts before publicly announcing the West Springfield project in January. Hard Rock New England President Tim Maland said there are no plans to pursue a casino in another region of the state.
The host community agreement negotiated between Hard Rock and West Springfield officials called for annual payments up to $26 million with $18 million guaranteed to the town. Hard Rock was also committed to spend $35 million on infrastructure to improve traffic flow around the Big E fairgrounds.
West Springfield Town Council member Angus Ruslow said he believes people will come to regret the vote to reject the casino deal.
The trustees of the non-profit Eastern States Exposition agreed to partner with Hard Rock and become the landlord for the casino to help fund improvements to the aging buildings on the fairgrounds. Big E officials said they were also concerned their year-round entertainment and trade-show business could suffer if a casino is located nearby in Springfield.