The overtures of a casino operator to Milford officials last week put Beacon Hill's ongoing debate over expanded gambling in more urgent focus. Resort casinos have been proposed for Middleboro, Palmer, and East Boston, but this is the first time a casino developer has come to MetroWest with a location and a plan.

The overtures of a casino operator to Milford officials last week put Beacon Hill's ongoing debate over expanded gambling in more urgent focus. Resort casinos have been proposed for Middleboro, Palmer, and East Boston, but this is the first time a casino developer has come to MetroWest with a location and a plan.


Developers Bill Warner, from Las Vegas, and David Nunes, from Colorado, would like to build a casino on 200 acres just east of I-495, between Rte. 85 and Rte. 16. The $800 million first phase would create 3,000 jobs, they say. It would ultimately expand to include 5,000 slot machines, 250 table games, several thousand hotel rooms in a high-rise tower, up to 13 restaurants and other amenities.


Milford selectmen accepted the proposal with an open mind, they said, promising to study it carefully and negotiate in good faith. It's a welcome attitude, one we expect casino builders wouldn't find at some other area communities. But Milford has a history of seeing development as an opportunity, not a threat. From its granite quarries to its sprawling downtown mills, it has always been a town where people work, not one they come home to after working somewhere else. When the industry left downtown, Milford took advantage of its two exits on the new I-495 to develop office parks and a successful new retail center along Fortune Boulevard. The proposed casino site, on the other side of 495, is as plausible from a planning perspective as any we've seen.


Milford's officials, and its people, aren't pushovers. Not long ago they let it be known in no uncertain terms that a local tavern owner wouldn't be allowed to open a strip club. Town officials can be expected to ask developers tough questions, work through potential problems and drive a hard bargain when it comes to mitigation and local revenue.


Their evaluation process can illuminate the issues state legislators must address in the gambling legislation expected to take shape in the coming months. Town officials, like their counterparts on Beacon Hill, will have to sort through competing estimates of jobs created and revenue generated. They will be talking about performance bonds, traffic projections, law enforcement responsibilities, permitting procedures, state oversight and local options. Without legislation, all the talks between town officials and developers must be preliminary, but the questions raised can help lawmakers write more comprehensive legislation.


For instance, backers of the Milford proposal would prefer a new exit be built off of I-495, bringing customers directly to their door. Local officials, already worried about the traffic impact, would agree. The state bill should make it easier to create new interchanges for these projects - as long as the developer pays for it.


This specific proposal underlines another concern. The casino site is on Milford's border with Holliston and within walking distance of Hopkinton down Rte. 85. This won't be just Milford's casino. It will have an impact on communities all around Milford, but Massachusetts' antiquated planning laws give neighboring towns almost no role in decisions that affect them.


If and when casinos are legalized, it will be up to the state to license them, but the decision shouldn't rest with the state alone.


"If we were going to allow it, communities would have to welcome this," state Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, told a Daily News reporter. "Clearly surrounding communities would play a role in any decision as well."


Spilka has two good reasons to study this proposal. As chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, she will have a lead role in bringing any expanded gambling legislation to a vote. She also represents Holliston and Hopkinton, giving her a personal stake in protecting the interests of neighbor communities.


The Legislature is months away from a decision on licensing casinos, and there's no guarantee that the Milford proposal will be one of the two or three resort casinos likely to get the state's nod, even if the Legislature reverses its rejection of casinos last year. But we should approach the state's decision with eyes wide open, and the Milford proposal gives us something concrete to look at.


The MetroWest Daily News