BRIMFIELD – Two weeks after absorbing the news that an international gambling corporation based in Las Vegas is eyeing a rural part of town for a $600 million casino development, some townspeople are beginning to publicly speak out against the idea.
Key players in the movement that fought off a proposed wind farm atop West Mountain last year said in interviews this week that they expect to mount a similar battle against the casino proposed by MGM Resorts International. Anti-casino fliers headlined “The Unfortunate Truth” have begun appearing around town, and casino opponents have set up an email distribution list to spread information and coordinate their efforts.
An MGM executive said he welcomes all input as the company draws up specific plans to present to the town and that representatives of the company hope to meet with opponents in the coming weeks to hear their concerns.
Would-be casino operators in Massachusetts must first secure host community approval before submitting a bid on one of the three casino licenses to be offered in the state.
“I think there’s going to be organized resistance,” said Virginia A. Irvine, who was a member of and spokeswoman for the anti-wind farm group No Brimfield Wind. “We didn’t want to industrialize our town with wind turbines, and I would expect people who didn’t want that won’t want to industrialize our town with a casino.”
Judith A. Sessler, another vocal opponent of the wind farm plan that ultimately was withdrawn by the developer in the face of stiff resistance, said she’s also girding for a fight over the casino plan.
A portion of Ms. Sessler’s wooded property off John Haley Road, a winding country road along a stream, abuts the proposed casino parcel, about 150 acres owned by businessman David Callahan of West Brookfield just north of the Massachusetts Turnpike.
The opponents are under no illusions, though, that taking on a gambling industry heavy-hitter that reported $6 billion in revenues in 2010 will be equivalent to going up against First Wind, a Boston-based green energy firm that had proposed building at least eight 400-foot-tall windmills on West Mountain near the proposed casino site.
MGM hired Brown Rudnick LLP, a prominent national law firm with offices in Boston, to handle public relations and lobbying in Massachusetts. MGM spent $60,000 on lobbying Beacon Hill last year, according to records on file with Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin’s office.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle,” Ms. Sessler said. “We have so many new people in Brimfield that don’t realize what a treasure it was. We were hit so hard by the tornado. I’m really concerned that we’re so battered emotionally and that gives less incentive to think about the long-term (effects) of the casino.”
In announcing the casino plan in Brimfield earlier this month, MGM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jim Murren stressed the potential for thousands of permanent jobs at the finished casino in addition to construction jobs to build it. Mr. Callahan, the land owner, and Mr. Murren said the developers would listen to input from residents and seek to incorporate their suggestions as more specific plans are drawn up.
In a telephone interview from his office in Las Vegas, MGM Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Alan Feldman said the company is eager to talk with any townspeople wary of a casino. At this stage, the company has only announced plans to submit a proposal, and there’s plenty of time to hear and address concerns from residents, Mr. Feldman said.
“At the end of the day, all we can do is try to show folks that we’ve been sensitive to their concerns and listened to what they had to say. I don’t think it’s going to be possible to win every person over, but I think we can prove we’re good listeners,” he said. “We intend to be good community partners and work hard to find solutions to any problems folks raise.”
But Ms. Irvine seemed less concerned with the particulars of the plan than with the fact that a large casino of any kind might harm the rural nature of the area.
“I moved here in 1978 because I wanted to be in the country. My neighbors moved out here because they enjoy the rural community and the quiet,” she said. “One person who lives down the street from me said he travels to cities all over the country for work, and when he gets home and gets out of his car, he likes that he can see the stars.”
MGM’s Mr. Feldman said in early meetings with architects, engineers and other consultants, the company has emphasized that the casino design must mitigate concerns about traffic as well as light and noise pollution. He said the company is excited by the challenge of developing a proposal appropriate for a landscape and region so different from Nevada.
“It’s got to fit into its surroundings. God forbid it look like a Las Vegas casino. That would be terrible,” he said.
But John R. Mortarelli, who lives about five miles from the proposed casino parcel, isn’t buying the notion that a major resort-style casino can be built in such a way that it won’t fundamentally alter the rural nature of the town.
“Totally against it. Absolutely stupid. Bad idea,” said Mr. Mortarelli, who predicted townspeople will reject any proposal put forward by MGM. “There’s a good chunk of people that just want to live a rural residential life. We don’t have any industrial zoning of any kind. We just want to live a country life.”
Mr. Mortarelli, who has lived in Brimfield for three decades, said there’s a high correlation between opponents of any large commercial development in town and politically active residents who always vote. The members of an e-mail distribution list set up to oppose the wind farm last year have been added to a new list designed to coordinate resistance to the casino plan, he said.
“There will be organized opposition. How can you help but organize to fight them when they come in with stuff like this?” Mr. Mortarelli said.
Mr. Feldman said MGM is not so naive as to think it can win over every person in town, but the company would like to talk with opponents just the same.
“We’d love to meet with them,” he said. “We’d love to hear what they’re worried about and at least start a dialogue.”
Although there’s no firm timetable yet, and the state is still assembling a gambling commission to evaluate casino bids and regulate the eventual license holders, Mr. Feldman said he would expect the MGM proposal to be put to voters in Brimfield at some point later this year.
In the meantime, the company and casino opponents will be working to win over townspeople to their side of what could become a contentious issue from Brimfield.
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