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Leominster slots worry some in Orange, Athol

ORANGE — With Leominster being considered as one of three sites for a planned slot parlor for the state, some officials in Athol and Orange, half an hour’s drive away, are raising concerns about the effect on the struggling community.

Cordish Companies, a Baltimore-based developer, has proposed a $204 million slot parlor for a site near the junction of Interstate 190 and Route 117. Company President David Cordish said the parlor, which would create jobs for the area and would provide a dedicated $1.5 million annually to help startup medical device firms through a partnership with the University of Massachusetts, would be ready to open in 2015.

About 62 percent of Leominster voters in a referendum last month endorsed the proposal, which was presented this week to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission along with pitches for a parlor in Plainville and in Raynham, both in the southeastern part of the state.

The five-member gaming commission expects to award the slots-only license in late December or early January. The winning firm would be the first facility licensed and almost certainly the first to open under the state’s 2011 expanded gambling law, which also allows for up to three regional resort casinos. Under state law, the parlor can have up to 1,250 slot machines but no live table games. The facility would pay 49 percent of its gambling revenue in state taxes.

All three companies promised to install the maximum 1,250 slot machines allowed under the state law.

Unlike the Raynham Park proposal for the former dog racing track or Penn National Gaming’s bid for Plainridge Racecourse, the Leominster site was called ideal by Cordish because it would be at least an hour’s drive from Taunton, where the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe hopes to build a resort casino.

But Leominster is only half an hour from the Athol-Orange area, which struggles with high rates of unemployment and poverty.

“I think we’re a little leery,” said Rebecca Bialecki, executive director of the North Quabbin Coalition. “I think people are a little hopeful that it’s far enough away from us so that we’re not negatively impacted. There are people concerned, certainly, about the gambling piece, but slot parlors are not a full-blown resort. They’re more of a concern, because it’s more of a draw for some of the negative impacts of gambling, like the addiction or some of the drug stuff that goes along with it. It’s not the ‘glitz and glam’ of casino gambling that people just might start looking for.”

Bialecki said she’s just begun to hear reverberations in the community about the Leominister proposal, for which Cordish literally went knocking on doors to win support before last month’s referendum.

State Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange, who voted against the state’s casino law that allowed a single slot parlor and three casinos for which development rights are expected to be approved in the spring, said she remains concerned about the effects of gambling.

“Sometimes the people who can least afford losing any money get attracted to that,” said Andrews. But she held out hope that there are ways to seek “mitigation money” to deal with the negative effects of that development.

“We only have so much discretionary money,” she said, saying that she doesn’t believe the terms for seeking that money have been defined yet. “If there’s a negative economic impact on certain communities, or it has a differential effect on the mostly poor, we could put out a compelling argument to go after that money.“

But she added that there will be stiff competition for that kind of compensation, and that communities will be pressured to attract people to venues that would provide what she called “healthier” choices.

C. Baxter Chandler, a Holyoke-based social worker who specializes in clients with problem gambling, said that while there are plenty of people who enjoy gambling without developing a problem, others are more vulnerable.

“They sell the dream, the possibility that somebody’s going to make it big,” he said. “It’s a tempting gamble. And that’s where we see people developing problems.”

The gaming commission has set an Oct. 31 deadline for reaching compensation agreements with neighboring communities.

You can reach Richie Davis at
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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