By Jack Minch
BOSTON -- Fitchburg City Solicitor John Barrett appeared before the state Gaming Commission Thursday requesting $50,000 from The Cordish Companies to study the traffic, social and housing impacts on the city if a slots casino is built in Leominster.
"It's hard to determine what effect this proposal will have," Barrett told the commission.
Additionally, Sterling and Bolton want the commission to declare them as surrounding communities, which would qualify them for impact fees.
The commission is expected to make a decision at its meeting next Thursday.
The Cordish Companies is proposing a $200 million slots casino on Jungle Road.
The commission is expected to decide by the first week of January between three competing slots-casinos proposals including similar plans in Raynham and Plainville.
Barrett and Fitchburg's special council, William Devereaux, argued that a casino in Leominster will have a bigger impact than it will on Townsend, which has negotiated a surrounding-community status even though it's 14 miles from the center of Leominster.
Fitchburg and Leominster have a traditionally close relationship and are known as the Twin Cities, Barrett said
A casino in Leominster will impact the housing market in Fitchburg and put a strain on inspectional services; could spur illegal activity; and add wear and tear to roadways, Devereaux said.
"And we need the disbursement to address those concerns," he said.
Barrett and Devereaux referenced a University of Buffalo study indicating communities with lower-income populations within a 20-mile radius of a casino suffer the greatest adverse impacts.
"Frankly, I think Fitchburg fits right in that definition," Devereaux said.
Fitchburg's 19 percent poverty rate is double Leominster's, Barrett said.
The city wants the money from Cordish to hire expert help to determine the impact.
The money requested from Cordish will be used for legal expenses and fees to hire experts in areas such as public safety and traffic.
About 60 percent of the funding would cover legal fees, Devereaux said under questioning from commission Chairman Stephen Crosby.
Fitchburg officials have met briefly with The Cordish Companies President Joe Weinberg who said he doesn't consider Fitchburg a surrounding community, Barrett said.
"We frankly were taken aback by that," he said.
Weinberg said he's willing to meet and negotiate but is opposed to labeling Fitchburg a surrounding community which would require impact fees, Barrett said
"It's akin to saying we will play ball with you but you don't get a bat during the game," Barrett said.
Weinberg appeared in front of the commission before Barrett and Devereaux, saying the state already has 12 programs to address problem gambling, including one in Fitchburg.
The state has set parameters for impact fees, he said.
"We do not believe they meet the test of adverse impact for fees," he said.
The state gambling law says roads must have at least a 10 percent increase in traffic to warrant support but the Cordish proposal won't reach that threshold in Fitchburg, he said.
The casino is expected to increase Lancaster's traffic 8 percent and Bolton by 4 percent, Weinberg said.
He pointed to positive impacts for the region including as many as 1,200 temporary and permanent jobs, $30 million in annual salaries, $20 million in purchases for local goods and services.
The project has won support from chambers of commerce, area businesses, Fitchburg State University and Mount Wachusett Community College, and the local workforce development program.
Cordish has committed up to $1.2 million yearly to the University of Massachusetts to help start-up medical devices companies.
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