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Suffolk Downs pitches a casino

Track owners want a resort complex; proposal has powerful backers

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / July 7, 2010

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As lawmakers yesterday began to hash out a compromise gambling bill, the owners of the Suffolk Downs racetrack unveiled their proposal for a resort-style casino at the East Boston facility.

The casino would have as many as 5,000 slot machines and more than 200 table games — as well as upscale restaurants and shops — in a renovated grandstand at Suffolk Downs, officials said. Later construction would add a 400- to 600-room hotel, spa, fitness facility, and more restaurants and shops in an adjacent building.

The Suffolk Downs complex would be more modest in size, and less glitzy, than the sprawling casinos operated by Indian tribes in neighboring Connecticut. Rather than gleaming glass towers, the low-rise buildings would be designed to evoke the architecture of Revere Beach circa early 1900s.

“We wanted a concept consistent with the traditions of New England, the character of the area, and our 75-year legacy as a racetrack,’’ said Richard Fields, Suffolk Downs’s principal owner and a deep-pocketed developer who has successfully built two major casinos in Florida.

Suffolk Downs would be one of several competitors for the few coveted casino licenses that lawmakers are expected to approve. Other developers have already proposed similar gambling resorts at locations in New Bedford, Palmer, and Milford. Two Wampanoag Indian tribes also want to open casinos at separate sites in Fall River.

But Suffolk Downs is seen by many political observers as being well-positioned in the competition because it is in the district of House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a strong proponent of gaming who led his chamber’s approval of a casino bill earlier this year. DeLeo’s father once worked at the track. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino is also a strong supporter of Suffolk Downs getting a casino license.

“I think it will bring people into the city. It will create more jobs,’’ Menino said yesterday, adding he wanted to make sure that Suffolk Downs commits to completing both phases of the project. “We need a full destination resort.’’

Chip Tuttle, Suffolk Downs’ chief operating officer, said developers are ready to invest $600 million or more, as required in the Senate bill. If they win one of the casino licenses, they could immediately begin work that would create as many as 2,000 construction jobs and another 2,250 permanent jobs once the gaming complex is open.

Suffolk Downs’s release of more details about its proposed casino coincided yesterday with the naming of the negotiation teams from the Massachusetts House and Senate that will try to work out compromise legislation by the time the Legislature recesses at the end of this month.

The House earlier this year approved legislation that would legalize two casinos and authorize the state’s four racetracks to host as many as 750 slot machines.

Last week, the Senate approved a bill to authorize three resort casinos but gave no special considerations to racetracks.

The House and Senate versions would each create a gambling commission to award the casino licenses and then regulate the operators.

Suffolk Downs officials said they are preparing a fallback plan if lawmakers create a slots-only right for racetracks and their hopes for a full-fledged casino seem dim. They would exercise the option they have to purchase nearby Wonderland Greyhound Park and consolidate Wonderland’s allowed slot machines with those at Suffolk Downs. Wonderland is facing the closing of its racing business since Massachusetts voters banned dog-racing in 2008.

However, Suffolk Downs officials made clear their preference is to compete for one of the casino licenses. “Our objective is to do a full resort,’’ Tuttle said.

Richard McGowan, a Boston College economist who has written extensively about gambling, said Suffolk Downs is a top contender because of its location in the metro Boston area, as well as the organizational prowess of its owners.

“They’ve got everything going for them. They have the local politicians going for them, they have the money and the plans, and they’ve got the location going for them,’’ he said.

Even opponents feel outgunned. John Ribeiro, founder of the opposition group Neighbors of Suffolk Downs, said he consistently hears in the community that a casino at Suffolk Downs is “a done deal.’’

“Everywhere I turn, people say it is coming,’’ said Ribeiro, who opposes the project because he believes it will harm local businesses. “I think they’ve underestimated the other folks who haven’t been exposed to the negative impacts.

“I think it is an uphill battle.’’

Tuttle said racetrack officials have been meeting with members of the surrounding community, including Ribeiro’s group last week. He said track owners are committed to making transportation improvements in the area.

“We have heard loud and clear from our neighbors over the last several years — East Boston, Revere, Winthrop, and Chelsea — that they have concerns about traffic, they are concerned about public safety,’’ Tuttle said.

“We are going to have a comprehensive, transparent community input process, so if we do this, it works for the community.’’

Suffolk Downs was built in 1935 and is the last thoroughbred racetrack in New England.

Its 163 acres span parts of East Boston and Revere.

Although the track has lost money for several years, its owners have held out for expanded gambling in Massachusetts to turn their business around.

It currently hosts 100 days of live racing a year from May to November and employs 1,500 people.

Robert Goodman, a gambling researcher and author, questioned the presumption by Massachusetts lawmakers that casinos would increase revenue for the state. Instead, gambling customers would be spending money at casinos they otherwise would have spent on other businesses, he said.

“No serious economic impact analysis has been done in Massachusetts,’’ he said.

“More money is going to be sucked out of the local economy.’’

Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com.

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