Palmer readies to vote, five years after Mohegan Sun rolled into town

Mohegan Sun, one of the first casino companies to plant its flag on Massachusetts soil five years ago, finally faces the voters of Palmer on Tuesday, in a do-or-die referendum on the company’s roughly $1 billion casino resort proposal.

Casino opponents have been active in the small Western Massachusetts town, energized by September election results in West Springfield, where a Hard Rock proposal generally expected to pass was clobbered at the ballot box.

Mohegan Sun has countered with an active political campaign, including an understated video ad starring Chief Executive Mitchell Etess. There are no flashing slot machines or tumbling dice, just shots of Etess in a diner, a general store and out in the woods looking at development plans. He talks gently about how the company understands the needs of a small town, and says Mohegan Sun wants to build “something great” in Palmer, without precisely mentioning what that would be — a resort casino.

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The little available public polling suggests a close contest in Palmer. An October WWLP-22News poll of 400 Palmerites — Palmeranians? — found 49 percent in favor of the Mohegan Sun project and 40 percent opposed. The margin of error was 4.75 percent. While a 9-point advantage may seem like a healthy margin for the casino, the advantage is remarkably similar to the poll results Hard Rock reported shortly before the company’s West Springfield proposal lost by 10 percentage points. As UMASS-Dartmouth casino expert Clyde Barrow has observed: support for casino projects often falls short of poll numbers. Why? One theory is that opponents are generally more passionate. They’d crawl through fire to vote against a casino, while supporters generally tend to be less rabid about the issue and therefore less likely to show up on Election Day.

I talked to several astute political observers in Western Massachusetts and the majority says Mohegan Sun has done enough to win. Nobody is expecting a landslide.

Voters in East Boston and Revere vote Tuesday on a Suffolk Downs casino proposal. Polling says that one is close in Eastie, too.