I took the scenic route from Northampton to Palmer last week, avoiding the highway in favor of Bay Road through Hadley and Amherst and Route 181 through Belchertown. On the sunny morning of Election Day, my ride was not only relaxing but a feast for the eyes as I rolled by lots of open country, past beautiful farms, through charming rural villages.
How, I wondered, could a casino complex do anything but spoil what makes this part of Massachusetts special?
As I got within a quarter mile of Palmer’s town hall, I imagined up ahead a town already largely changed by the efforts of Mohegan Sun to secure the support of the voters of Palmer to build a $1 billion casino. As I drew within sight of Main Street, I expected to see it somehow altered from the downtown Palmer I know—a bigger, flashier, more oppressively developed place than it really is. Of course, Palmer hadn’t visibly changed. Except for the lawn signs in nearly every yard, it still seemed to be the quiet country town I’ve been visiting occasionally for nearly 50 years.
But that surface impression was soon challenged as I started talking to voters. Palmer had become deeply divided, I was assured by people on both sides of the issue. It had turned neighbor against neighbor, had even split up families. Both sides complained about dirty tactics by the other side, of stolen lawn signs and verbal abuse.
The signs of tension were clear on Election Day. A union man holding a pro-casino sign on Main Street said the drivers passing by were expressing their opinion in one of two ways: “thumbs up or the middle finger.” Around the corner, a small group of casino opponents repeated a litany of grievances against the well-financed casino campaign and the company behind it. But bitter as they were, those same folks told me they thought Palmer would reject the casino. I was a bit taken aback by their confidence.
“A lot of us like Palmer the way it is,” one man told me. “I moved here from Springfield to get away from the crime and congestion.”
That was the point the governor and other casino proponents didn’t seem to understand, the man said: “All communities have troubles, but most of us came here or stay here because we like it. A casino isn’t the kind of help we need.”
In Palmer, that sentiment prevailed last week, as it did in East Boston and earlier this year in West Springfield. The opposition in Palmer overcame superior funding and organization, leaving Mohegan Sun clinging to the possibilities of a recount. For casino opponents, the results come as a heartening victory, raising hopes of rallying voters to block casino development in a statewide referendum. Meanwhile, Palmer remains a town divided.•