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Casino executive pitches Palmer plan to Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce

MITCHELL GROSSINGER ETESS

MITCHELL GROSSINGER ETESS Purchase photo reprints »

Mitchell Etess, the chief executive officer for Mohegan, told members of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce on Monday that the selling points for his company’s $600 million proposal are jobs, entertainment and commercial spin-offs that will benefit the region.

“Our casino and our location is designed to add development to all the four counties,” Etess said. “We’re going to bring regional prosperity and regional development.”

Etess added that those living and working in Amherst and Hadley — the towns that supply the bulk of the chamber’s membership — should enjoy an “economic trickle-down” from the casino, but none of the potential drawbacks, such as an increase in traffic and crime.

According to Mohegan’s estimates, the project would create more than 1,000 construction jobs and more than 2,500 permanent jobs.

“We are going to offer opportunities for employment throughout the region,” Etess said.

Mohegan, which is partnering with Brigade Capital Management, a $12 billion New York investment group, is one of four entities that have submitted $400,000 bid packages to the state’s gaming commission for a casino in western Massachusetts. The others are MGM Resorts and Penn National Gaming, both with plans for Springfield, and Hard Rock International, which has a proposal for West Springfield.

The gaming commission is expected to choose one by March 1, 2014.

For some attending the chamber’s annual luncheon, there were questions about the potential impact on the local economy, with gaming, hotels, restaurants and shops expected to be part of the casino complex, and whether this would harm existing businesses.

Reza Rahmani, who runs Moti restaurant and Lit nightclub in downtown Amherst, said many in the business community have already expressed concern about the University of Massachusetts acting more like a business in recent years. The casino, he said, will be another competitor for limited dollars.

“It adds another corporate mentality. That’s definitely a major concern,” Rahmani said.

There is a potential for local bars, restaurants and shops to suffer as casino operators can do more advertising, he said.

“It’s tough to compete with marketing. We will see local businesses go out,” Rahmani said.

Stephanie O’Keeffe, chairwoman of the Select Board, said some college students may be tempted to head to the casino regularly as a place to drink and gamble.

Etess discounted that. “The reality is, it’s easier to make a bet in your college dorm room than it is at a casino,” Etess said.

Mohegan also has procedures in place to deal with problem gamblers, Etess said, adding that most people who gamble are responsible consumers.

Tony Maroulis, the chamber’s executive director, said it is understandable that members are worried about the impacts on crime rates, the labor force and existing businesses. Maroulis said it makes sense to begin discussing how to mitigate such problems now.

“We’ve got to get in front of it, and we are,” Maroulis said.

That was one reason Maroulis invited Etess to speak, but he also wants to invite the casino to be part of the Hampshire Regional Tourism Council, a partnership involving the Amherst Area, Greater Northampton and Easthampton chambers of commerce.

The casino, Maroulis said, might attract people from distant locations.

Etess agreed. “We think casinos are part of tourism and need to be part of the community,” he said.

Town Manager John Musante said the bids mark the beginning of a yearlong conversation.

“I agree that the state and governor have set up a thorough and what we hope will be highly interactive review process and dialogue before any decisions are made,” he said.

Etess said the luncheon was an opportunity for him to speak to an audience consisting of many who may be leery of having a casino nearby.

He tried to assure them that Mohegan would be a good neighbor.

“Our culture is about inclusion, making people feel comfortable about what’s going on around them,” Etess said.

Mohegan could work with UMass, which he described as having a pre-eminent hospitality program, and use the casino as another place for internships and work experience. He also expects to partner with nonprofits, including United Way.

Etess contended that the Palmer proposal is better than any of the other three proposals submitted, and the only one proposed for a rural area, which is what people are accustomed to at the tribal casinos in Connecticut.

“That’s the type of facility people like to go to,” Etess said.

Mohegan runs Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., and more recently opened Pocono Downs in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. It also manages a casino in Atlantic City, N.J.

Etess said Mohegan has been visible in Palmer, where it opened a storefront four years ago, hosted meet-and-greet events and contacted more than 10,000 people.

“We obviously feel very, very good about our position,” Etess said.

Mohegan has also built relationships with entertainment destinations in the area, such as the Eastern States Exposition, where the Big E is held each September, and the Basketball Hall of Fame, Etess said.

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