Community Discusses Casino

Two well-attended meetings have taken place in East Boston since the owners of Suffolk Downs have revealed their plans for a $1 billion resort-style casino at the 77-year-old racetrack.

Over 200 hundred residents turned out for the first meeting held last Tuesday at East Boston High School. Resident that are both for and against the casino plan were well represented but the meeting also drew a large section of the Eastie population that still has not made up their mind one way or another if they will support the plan and want to know more.

Suffolk Downs Principal owner Richard Fields made his case for why a destination casino is the right fit for Eastie.

“When I was coming through neighborhood tonight it struck me that I grew up in a neighborhood much like East Boston filled with hard working men and woman just like everyone here tonight,” said Fields. “I formed a deep connection with the workers at the track and committed to keeping Suffolk Downs alive. This strong commitment to the hard working men and woman has helped us to create a development that will be a world class resort that protects the racing industry and the people that work at the racetrack. We feel we’ve created something that respects the neighborhood and fits into the fabric of the community. We are confident that we have accomplished that goal.”

Suffolk Downs representatives also lent their expertise in the fields of architecture, crime and traffic mitigation and Senator Anthony Petruccelli challenged residents to be tough on the owners and experts.

“Ask them tough questions, put them on the spot, don’t let them off the hook and make them convince you this is the right thing because in the end its going to be your decision,” said Petruccelli to the crowd.

The first meeting was dominated by questions or comments from casino opponents that questioned the owners’ figures on traffic, crime and what a casino would do to local businesses.

No Eastie Casino member John Riebero wondered why such a comprehensive crime plan has to be in place if casinos were safe places in which to do business. Riebero argued that the crime plan points to only one conclusion and that is Suffolk Downs expects crime to increase.

However, head of Suffolk Downs Security and former Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans shot back that it’s better to be prepared with a solid anti-crime plan than to react to crime if it should arise.

Suffolk Downs’ COO Chip Tuttle has on several occasions pointed to Bethlehem, PA where crime has steadily decreased since a resort-style casino was built in the city approximately the size of East Boston, Revere, Chelsea and Winthrop combined. There the city’s Mayor John Callahan recently stated that crime was again down for a second year in a row. Overall crime, said Callahan, was down 10 percent and remains one of the safest cities in the state.

The second meeting was held Monday at the Orient Heights Neighborhood Council’s monthly meeting. There, Tuttle again made the racetrack’s case and briefed residents most impacted by traffic at the intersection of Route 1A and Boardman Street on the $40 million road improvement project.

The major off-site roadway improvements to address existing regional traffic issues, includes a “flyover” at the Boardman Street intersection and a redesign to address longstanding deficient conditions and improve local access.

Again, Tuttle did his best to convince residents that the longstanding problems at that intersection could be remedied with a flyover—a construction plan that has been in the works for decades but never acted upon by the state.

One interesting graph shown at both the EBHS meeting and Orient Heights meeting compared traffic generated by a casino at Suffolk Downs (10,000 additional car trips per day and 15,000 on the weekends) to existing traffic produced by Logan Airport related traffic. Currently Logan related traffic produces nearly 50,000 trips per day on average—far more than a future casino would cause.

Another point made on the graph was that any other development at Suffolk Downs would most likely utilize the 160 plus acres of land and would produce 5,000 more car trips per day than a casino would.

“We are preserving a lot of green space, which includes the racetrack and barns that would otherwise be developed under another scenario,” said Tuttle.

Tuttle said by law they would have to keep the thoroughbred industry going thus negating any future development on the historic oval.

However, if a casino is rejected in Eastie the owners could theoretically sell the land for a mixed-use development—something casino opponents have been pushing for.  But the graph showed that while casino opponents support development other than a casino the impacts of a mixed use, 160 acre development could be far more detrimental to the traffic conditions on Route 1A.

“Look, if someone else develops the land as something other than a casino they will not be required to make any of the infrastructure improvements we will be forced to make under the state’s gaming law,” said Tuttle. “It’s also likely that another developer would not be able to raise the capitol needed to undertake the project we at Suffolk Downs are proposing to do.”

In the end, it seems that following the two meetings it was evident that many residents just want to know exactly what Eastie’s going to get in return for supporting a casino—a question that unfortunately Tuttle can’t answer until Mayor Thomas Menino and the city unveil the host community agreement.

“I just don’t think we’ve been wowed yet by the plan,” said one resident after Monday’s meeting.

The ability to wow Eastie residents has been placed at the doorstep of Menino and many at Monday’s meeting still on the fence said that in the end the mitigation package for Eastie better be substantial, awe inspiring and innovative.

“If we support the casino here in Eastie and the money is used to build community centers in West Roxbury and Hyde Park that will be a real problem for the people here,” said another resident Monday. “By right Eastie should get a substantial amount off the top because the people here will have to live with all the impacts.”

The mayor’s host community advisory board will hold its first meeting in the neighborhood on Wednesday, June 27 at 6:30 p.m. at Orient Heights Yacht Club.

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