By Jack Minch
LEOMINSTER -- Representatives for a family-owned Maryland company proposing a slots casino on Jungle Road got a final chance to make their pitch to the state Gaming Commission in a hearing held at Leominster City Hall over five hours Monday evening.
Then, residents from the region and nearby communities got their opportunity to tell the commission just what they think about the proposal.
"We understand there are strong feelings, even passion over this," Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby said. "We will do our best the next few months to make the wisest decision we can."
The arguments came down to the opportunity for creating jobs for area residents and revenue for the city versus quality-of-life concerns and potential declining property values.
The commission adjourned the meeting but will reconvene when The Cordish Cos. finishes negotiating the last of its surrounding-community agreements.
"At the moment, not all the surrounding-community agreements are finished," commission member James McHugh said.
Tata Auditorium was filled with signs in support of and opposition to the casino. More than 70 people signed up to speak in front of the commission.
The numbers of opponents and supporters appeared fairly evenly split.
Crosby had to ask residents not to boo or cheer too loudly after speakers finished their comments.
Most public officials who spoke -- ranging from state Sen. Jennifer Flanagan and Rep. Dennis Rosa, both Leominster Democrats, and state Rep. Stephen DiNatale, a Fitchburg Democrat, to city councilors and union chiefs -- supported the proposal.
"It's very important to this community that the commission listens to both sides," said at-large City Councilor Claire Freda, who supports the project.
The Cordish Cos. is proposing a $200 million, 125,000-square-foot casino with 1,250 slots machines and electronic games. The casino would also have three restaurants and a live-entertainment venue.
The commission is responsible for issuing the state's sole slots-parlor license as well as three full casino licenses.
Crosby has said he hopes the license is issued in early January.
But surrounding communities can appeal their agreements, so that could push it out to late January, McHugh said.
The commission is scheduled to hold hearings in Plainville tonight and Raynham on Wednesday for similar proposals.
The Cordish Cos. CEO David Cordish and President Joe Weinberg announced Tuesday that they prefer to go forward with their alternate plan for the 26-acre site by using an existing building for the proposal.
That would speed up the construction phase to allow the company to open by the end of 2014.
That was a concern for McHugh because it could change a number of issues with the proposed site plan.
"I've got to look at the application and, in particular, the site component," McHugh said as the hearing broke up. "I just have to see if it makes a difference."
The existing building, home to two companies, is on a different part of the proposed site, so the change could affect lighting, landscaping and other issues, McHugh said.
The existing building is the same 125,000 square feet originally proposed.
Cordish boasted a long history of success for the third-generation firm. It has developed more than 50 million square feet of nongaming enterprises, including commercial and retail.
Its Maryland Live! casino, in Hanover, Md., employs more than 3,000 and pays the state more than $1 million in taxes daily, he said.
"We're very proud of our track record," he said. "The predictor of future success is past success."
The part of its plan that separates the Cordish proposal from its competitors in Plainville and Raynham is its commitment to give $1 million to $1.5 million to the M3D3 program at UMass Lowell. The plan would give proposed medical-device companies start-up capital to open shop in the region stretching from Lowell to Leominster and Worcester, Cordish said.
He noted that the Plainville and Raynham sites could compete against full casinos in Taunton and Twin Rivers in Rhode Island.
"You have to have many many miles between you and a full casino or it won't work," Cordish said.
The Jungle Road site has proximity to highways, a utility infrastructure and zoning already in place to make it appealing, Weinberg said.
Cordish will renovate to create an environmentally friendly building that is certified by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEEDS, he said.
But money isn't a concern for residents who don't want the city's quality of life to deteriorate.
Opponent Corey Shields took a cue from "It's a Wonderful Life" and said the proposal would change Leominster from a Bedford Falls-type community to Potterville.
Ward 3 City Councilor David Cormier, who represents the area around Jungle Road, said it wasn't right that people in other parts of the city, such as North Leominster, got to vote at the referendum Sept. 24.
Despite that, Cormier said, the casino is a good proposal for the city because it offers jobs.
Residents from nearby Lancaster who live within 1 1/2 miles of the proposed casino, including Kevin Williams, said it wasn't fair that they didn't get to vote on the referendum, while people who live in Leominster seven miles from the site did.
He and other Lancaster residents collected 1,227 signatures opposing the casino, Williams said.
"We want our local input taken into consideration," he said. "We are just as much the local community as anybody in Leominster who could vote."
Alexandra Turner, of Lancaster, said the process so far has lacked transparency, and residents have had little opportunity to voice their concerns.
"After that honeymoon is over, what will happen to our blighted area?" she said.
One resident pointed out that Cordish amended its original proposal to include potential for a hotel and parking garage, which isn't what the city voted on.
"They presented a plan that takes on 26 acres," Robert Young said. "We voted on 16 acres."
David Gagne, who rents office space to Cordish on Sack Boulevard, said he's in favor of the casino, adding that the company is offering jobs and tax revenue, and plans to buy supplies locally.
"I just feel this is very good for the city of Leominster, and I support it," he said.
Police Officer Pat Aubuchon was among the supporters and was among those who mentioned that Leominster is a Gateway City that the state is targeting for economic development.
Brian Charron referred to the referendum vote that garnered 61.3 percent support, which was less than Raynham or Plainville.
"Award the license to a community that won't be virtually split by the arrival of a slots parlor," he told commission members.
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