By Jack Minch
LANCASTER -- While there wasn't any new ground broken Monday in an ongoing debate about the proposed slots casino, it was good to hear opinions first-hand, said commission Chairman Stephen Crosby.
Members of the state Gaming Commission spent 3 1/2 hours informing residents and municipal leaders from communities outside Leominster about the merits of a slots casino if it grants a license to open on the border of Lancaster and Leominster.
"Hearing from you will help us inform our thinking going forward trying to make this difficult decision," Crosby said.
The Cordish Companies is proposing a $200 million slots casino on Leominster's Jungle Road, which is near the Lancaster line. The proposed casino will be 125,000 square feet with 1,250 slot machines and electronic games.
Other developers are proposing similar plans in Plainville and Raynham.
The commission has one license to issue and expects to make a decision by early January. It is also responsible for issuing licenses next year for three full casinos that will be placed in the western, eastern and southern parts of the state.
Monday was the first time for many speakers to voice their opinions publicly since the proposal was introduced this summer. Seventy-nine people signed up to address the commission, though some left before getting a chance. Most were from Leominster and Lunenburg, but there were also residents from Sterling and Bolton.
Crosby warned the audience that the meeting was not to debate whether the state should allow casinos at all; rather, comments should focus on the Leominster proposal.
A similar meeting is scheduled to be held in Wrentham for the Plainville proposal tonight and a meeting in Easton to discuss the Raynham proposal Wednesday.
The commission plans to hold another meeting in Leominster in early December.
Proponents and opponents talked about jobs created, the negative impacts on traffic along roads such as Route 117, the impact on area businesses, the impact on response times for emergency services due to traffic, and the size of the project -- it was originally planned as 16 acres and could now be 26 acres.
Opponents walked past windows outside the Community Center, holding signs denouncing the proposal and then pushing them up against the windows.
Casino supporters reminded the commission that it will create 500-700 permanent jobs and about 600 temporary construction jobs to help stimulate employment and the economy.
State Rep. Dennis Rosa argued the project will help the Gateway Cities of Leominster and Fitchburg, which each have more than 40,000 residents and have been targeted by the state for economic revitalization.
"You can affect almost 100,000 people in two communities, two Gateway communities, out of 26 in the state," Rosa said.
Opponents painted a picture of David versus Goliath, in which The Cordish Companies has spent lavishly to build support but No Casino in Leominster has had few donations and little time to prepare but managed to find its own supporters.
"If there is more time, there's a possibility Leominster wouldn't even be in the running right now," said Corey Shields, of Leominster.
Traffic along Route 117 was a popular concern.
"This project will have a significant impact on traffic in Bolton and Lancaster," said Bolton Town Administrator Don Lowe.
Fitchburg sent a contingent of lawyers and Housing Director Ryan McNutt to say The Cordish Companies is not giving their concern about impact enough credence.
"Their dialogue with the city of Fitchburg has not exactly been overwhelming," said attorney William P. Devereaux said. "We would ask the commission to monitor how Cordish deals with the surrounding communities."
Fitchburg City Solicitor John Barrett said it isn't fair to compare the impact of the proposed Leominster casino with The Cordish Companies' full casino in Hanover, Md.
"We expect there will be residual traffic issues given the close relationship between Fitchburg and Leominster," he said.
Lancaster residents said it isn't fair they didn't get a vote as to whether to allow the proposal as Leominster residents did.
David Joyce, of Brockelman Road, Lancaster, said his house is a quarter-mile from the proposed casino and he didn't get to vote but Leominster residents on the other side of the city did get to cast ballots.
Voting should have been based on distance to the casino rather than municipal boundaries, Joyce said.
"I used to see the stars from my house, now I can see half the stars," he said. "When there's a 15-story hotel I won't see any of the stars."
Follow Jack Minch on Facebook, Tout and Twitter @JackMinch.