Brimfield casino site not worth the stakes

Can’t get there from here. MGM Resorts International finally threw in its hand and decided to walk away from a $600 million project to build a hilltop gambling mecca in the small western Massachusetts town of Brimfield.  The prospect of 3,000 jobs, a figure almost equal to the population of Brimfield itself, also vanished.

MGM said there were “too many complications.”

“The unique nature of MGM’s plans for an all-inclusive world-class resort on the Brimfield site, and our growing understanding of the needed scope for its infrastructure, simply do not allow us to pursue the comprehensive MGM resort originally envisioned here,” said William Hornbuckle, MGM’s chief marketing officer in a statement.

That infrastructure issues did in the project should come as no surprise.

The location seemed to be a puzzling pick for a casino from the start. Anyone who has tried to navigate Route 20 in the Sturbridge-Brimfield area during the Brimfield summer antique fairs, the largest outdoor antique shows in the US, knows the frustration of speeding off the Mass Pike only to begin a painful, bumper-to-bumper slog.

Route 20 did not faze the suits from Vegas. To mollify Brimfielders who were all too familiar with this traffic scourge, the company devised its own work-around: a casino-dedicated interchange off the Mass Pike that would take people directly to the “Rolling Hills Resort.” Price tag: about $30 million.

Then reality set in. Did you say new interchange? Bay State transportation officials required engineering studies and, in the Big Dig-scarred state, plans to fix any future problems. There were environmental concerns about wetlands as well. And those problems did not take into consideration whatever pound of flesh Federal Highway Administration and Brimfield officials planned to extract.

That MGM may have been having second thoughts was foreshadowed last month. The company had yet to come up with any concrete plans. One person associated with the project told The Boston Globe that the design and approval process would take anywhere from 12 to 18 months, a wildly optimistic timetable.

The proposed access road from the Mass Pike through the town of Warren also posed “jurisdictional issues” since it lies in the central-eastern Massachusetts casino region. All of this even before Brimfield residents weighed in on the project in a nonbinding vote that had been scheduled for May.

The failed MGM proposal will serve as a cautionary tale for casino developers trying to make headway in a state where construction projects are rarely as straightforward as they seem.

What appears to be a small bore concern, building an interchange from a highway to access a casino site, can pose obstacles of Olympian proportions once state and local officials, not to mention the feds, get into the mix. Rural areas will be particularly susceptible to these pressures, but cities and suburbs will also have to get a grip on what the construction, transportation, and environmental factors are, and what the realistic timelines associated with each of those areas really mean.

Brimfield’s loss may be neighboring Palmer’s gain. Mohegan Sun developers have expressed interest in a site there, and Palmer casino proponents have trumpeted their town’s virtues, including “access” and “infrastructure.” Exit 8 on the Mass Pike would take gamblers right into Palmer.

                                                                                                                            –GABRIELLE GURLEY


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