Massachusetts Town Bets on Gambling

Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick proposed that the state license three casinos, one in the depressed city of Palmer at this site.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick proposed that the state license three casinos, one in the depressed city of Palmer at this site. (By Dennis Vandal -- Associated Press)
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008

PALMER, Mass. -- In this once-prosperous, now-depressed former mill town in western Massachusetts, residents casually rattle off the names of all the factories that shut down long ago and of the businesses getting ready to leave.

"Everything is closing down," said Robyn Moriarty, 51, who has worked here in her father Bud's corner grocery store since she was in high school. "The video place wants to close. Comcast closed. There was a fruit company across the street -- they left. The taxi company wants to close. . . . There was a flower shop across the street -- she's gone."

With the local economy in such doldrums, any effort to bring jobs here might be expected to get an enthusiastic welcome. But there is ambivalence, and worry, about one effort being discussed: a massive casino resort to be built nearby, one of three casinos to be opened in the state, if Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D) can get his proposal through a reluctant state legislature.

For Patrick, bringing casinos to Massachusetts makes economic sense. He says his casino plan would create 30,000 construction jobs and 20,000 permanent jobs, as well as generate an anticipated $400 million a year in new revenue in a state grappling with a budget shortfall.

Patrick is not alone in eyeing casinos as potentially huge revenue generators. Over the past decade, an increasing number of states have come to rely on gambling, and particularly casino gambling, as a steady source of income and as an option far more palatable to the public than raising taxes or cutting services.

According to the American Gaming Association, a dozen states allow commercial casinos, including Pennsylvania, which recently approved a plan. In addition, 28 states allow Indian-run casinos to operate, and 11 states allow racetrack casinos.

Nationally, gaming taxes from commercial casinos generated about $5.3 billion for state coffers, with Indian-run casinos contributing another $1.1 billion, said Clyde W. Barrow, a gambling expert at the University of Massachusetts who helped Patrick develop his plan. "It's a good chunk of money," Barrow said, "and governments are increasingly turning to it because of resistance to tax increases."

States are also looking to casino gambling for an even simpler reason: because neighboring states have it. "The motivation for a lot of states to do it is their citizens are going out of state to gamble, so those tax revenues are leaving the state," said Douglas Walker, an economics professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and author of the book "The Economics of Casino Gambling."

Keeping up with the neighbors is Patrick's stated motivation. In Connecticut, just a two-hour drive from Boston and from Palmer, the sprawling Foxwoods casino complex is regularly packed with thousands of gamblers and resort-goers, many from Massachusetts. Massachusetts residents spend upward of $800 million a year at Foxwoods and the nearby Mohegan Sun Indian casino, and about $119 million of that goes directly into the Connecticut state treasury.

"We have [casino] gambling," Daniel O'Connell, the Massachusetts secretary for economic development, said in an interview. "We have it across our borders. We're not benefiting from it as we should be."

As states rush for a share of casino dollars, some experts and many critics warn that a glut of casinos in a relatively small area such as the Northeast might mean diminishing returns.

"I do think there's going to be a tailing off of gambling revenue," said Nick Johnson, a state budget expert at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Eventually, there has to be a finite interest in playing these games."

"We're going to kill the golden goose because there's too many of them," said Doug Bailey, president of DBMediaStrategies of Boston, who is coordinating for a group called Casino Free Mass to fight Patrick's plan. "If Massachusetts gets three casinos, Rhode Island will want one, Maine will want one."

Already, Rhode Island lawmakers are considering expanding their slot parlors in Lincoln and Newport to add table games, in response to the Massachusetts plan.

But casinos are seen as the fastest, surest way to bring jobs and growth to economically depressed areas such as western Massachusetts, where the jobless rate hovers between 7 and 7.5 percent -- far higher than the national average or the rate in the eastern part of the state near Boston.

Palmer's Main Street on a weekday afternoon has an empty, almost desolate feel. Many of the antique shops and boutiques have "closed" signs in the windows. Most of the working-age population -- those who haven't packed up and moved entirely -- drive miles each day for work. "If you want a decent-paying job, you leave town," Robyn Moriarty said.

"It was a lot different when I first came to work" in the store, she recalled. "There were a lot of people on the street. The old guys came in for their cigars and to make their bets."

Moriarty is not sold on the idea of bringing a casino to town. "I'm worried about it," she said, citing concerns about traffic and possibly an increase in crime. "I think the majority of people just want jobs bad enough, they're not thinking about what comes along with it."

And jobs are indeed what they want here.

"People need work. They really do," said Steve Mack, 41, a machinist and Palmer native. "People over the age of 58 -- people entering their senior years -- they don't want to see traffic. But start getting into the crowd 18 to 45, you'll find they are for it."

Mack was at the end of his workday and enjoying a couple of beers at the Tailgate Tavern. He drives 26 miles every day to work at a company that makes medical implant devices. "That's not bad to get a decent-paying job," he said.

"This town was built off the rail," he said, pointing toward the tracks outside. "Now they have minimal rail and almost zero industry."

Mack counts himself a casino supporter. "It's work. And what does western Massachusetts need? Jobs," he said. "It's not like it was, and never will be again. If they don't do this, they have to do something else."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company