Casino Gold Rush in Western Mass.

As Massachusetts lawmakers move toward allowing casino gambling in the state, major industry players are taking a closer look – a much closer look — at Western Massachusetts. New England Public Radio's Fred Bever reports.

It's a bit of a gambling gold rush. Three investor groups — including the owners of Connecticut's Mohegan sun  — say they want to develop a casino in the area.  But under the legislation, only one casino wil be allowed in Western Massachusetts.

Just this week, Penn National Gaming signaled its interest in a Springfield property – and company spokesman Eric shippers says there's more.

"As it looks like now al of the stars have aligned for potential passage of this law we really have started to have more dialogue in the community and looking for a good match for Penn national and a potential host community."

Shippers won't say what other towns are in contention – but he allows they are in range of Interstate 91 – the artery that right now carries busloads of Massachusetts gamblers to Connecticut casinos. Penn National, he says, wants to "repatriate" those gambling dollars to the Bay State.
"Clearly I think our competition recognizes that, which is why the Mohegans have set up shop in Palmer, with the hopes of protecting their flank," Shippers says.

There will be a lot for the public – and public officials, to sort through, says Tony Cignoli, a principal in paper City LLC, which hopes to site a casino on Holyoke. 

"This is going to be like trying to play chess on 48 boards at one time," he says. Cignoli says he knows of several serious industry players poking around which haven't gone public yet – his group has even signed non-disclosure agreements with some of them..

And Cignoli notes that under the proposed  legislation, communities could hold local referendums on whether to allow a casino in within two months of enactment. That's likely to set off a frenzy of campaigning by boosters, opponents, and deep-pocketed developers.

"So many competing interests. Pro-one community, anti-another., Communities will get into it with each other.," Cignoli says. "You know it was 16 years ago that it was opponents in Holyoke which ran television ads which inpacted negatively on a referendum in Springfield. Anything goes, and it can be really rock 'em sock em."

On the positive side, Cignoli says, the legislation provides for a great deal of transparency, and developers who don't put all their cards on the table are likely to fail at the polls. The state Senate, meanwhile, could vote on the bill next week.