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Revere likes the odds on beach, casino

City is banking on development of its two prime assets to ensure stability despite poor economy

By Steven Rosenberg
Globe Staff / September 23, 2010

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Since the city of Revere was named after the Colonial patriot in 1871, Revere’s economy has been an anomaly in a region where factories once prospered in smaller cities. Large manufacturing never came. Instead, its founding fathers created a financial formula of sunshine and gambling, relying on Revere Beach and Wonderland and Suffolk Downs race tracks to provide jobs and generate taxes.

Now, 114 years after the country’s oldest public beach opened, and nearly a century after patrons placed their first bets at the tracks, city officials are still looking to those locations for fresh sources of revenue that could propel Revere to fiscal solvency.

As the rest of the state endures the economic downturn, a confluence of events has pushed Revere toward an economic surge that could make it the envy of municipalities up and down the North Shore. The four-pronged redevelopment plan that could bring billions of new investment into the city al ready has begun: Earlier this month, workers broke ground on a $53.5 million, 1,500-car parking garage at the Wonderland T station. Once the garage is completed in 2012, a private developer has pledged to begin a $500 million project across the street from Revere Beach. The project, which calls for 900 new condominiums, nine new buildings ranging from eight to 16 stories high, a luxury hotel, and a new office building, is scheduled to take 10 years to complete and could bring $5.5 million in new property taxes to the city.

“I think the future is looking very good for the city, provided we can survive these few lean years,’’ said Mayor Thomas G. Ambrosino, who has spent the last 10 years in office putting the deal together to redevelop the beach. While Ambrosino was able to shore up infrastructure during the last decade — building four schools and a new police and fire station — he anticipates having to empty the city’s reserve account, about $3 million, in order to maintain services for the next two years.

Revenue from new property taxes would help pay for future projects that could top $100 million — such as building a new elementary school, and meeting a federal mandate to overhaul the city’s water and sewer systems.

Ambrosino said the key to the redevelopment is the new T garage, which will include 600 parking spaces dedicated for the planned $500 million private construction project at the beach.

The first phase of the complex would include a 14-story, 100-room hotel, 150 condos, a separate 150,000-square-foot office building, a public plaza overlooking the ocean, and a pedestrian footbridge that would connect Revere Beach to the subway station.

Joe DiGangi, lead investor for the mixed-use project, said he expects the complex to open in 2015. That first wave would bring $1.5 million annually in new taxes to the city.

While Ambrosino has focused on the Revere Beach project, officials from two of the largest commercial properties in the city — the former Wonderland Dog Track and Suffolk Downs — have discussed radically reshaping their land, moves that could bring in additional millions each year. The properties are just a mile apart. With Wonderland’s closing in August, the property seems certain for redevelopment. Suffolk Downs, which has nearly half of its 163 acres in Revere, had proposed a $600 million casino before legislators and Governor Deval Patrick failed to reach a compromise on a casino gambling bill over the summer.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Revere Democrat who clashed with Patrick after insisting that the state license slots at two race tracks, said he still supported allowing casino gambling in the state but was noncommittal about reintroducing a bill next year when the Legislature reconvenes.

“You just never know from year to year,’’ said DeLeo. “I think we’ll take a second look and study it again and see where we go from there.’’

Suffolk Downs, which assumed Wonderland’s $10 million mortgage in March, has made no decisions regarding possible redevelopment of the closed dog track’s 35-acre site, said Chip Tuttle, Suffolk Downs’ chief operating officer. He expects that redevelopment will begin there within the next 18 months. Tuttle also expects Suffolk Downs to be one of the major players in the casino hunt if expanded gambling is legalized.

With support from leading politicians such as Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, locals say a casino at Suffolk Downs would bring jobs and substantial tax revenue and boost Revere’s real estate prices, making projects along Revere Beach more viable.

“I’m very bullish on this,’’ said DiGangi, who has spent $4 million on permitting for the mixed-use site, and plans to build the project with or without a casino down the road. DiGangi holds the rights to build on another 6 acres of state land adjacent to the T, about 50 yards away from the ocean. Still, he said a casino just a mile from the beach could create an added demand for waterfront real estate and hotels.

“When you look at the possibilities of what can happen here and what can happen at Suffolk Downs, it’s hard not to be bullish,’’ he said.

If there is no new gambling hall, then some residents along the beach wonder if there will be a demand for an additional 900 condos near the water. Earlier this year, a proposal for a 12-story, 242-unit luxury condo building along the beach was scrapped after the development company declared bankruptcy. Over the last eight months, the number of condos for sale along the beach has doubled while prices have slipped nearly 10 percent. Now, 28 condos are for sale, with $265,000 the average price

“I’m skeptical, to put it mildly,’’ said Carolan Hill, who lives on Revere Beach. “Where’s the money going to come from in this kind of economy? Who’s going to invest?’’

But Bob Upton, who grew up near the beach and now works as a realtor for Century 21 North Shore, thinks the area is underbuilt and would attract commuters who want an ocean view.

“We know that the economy is going to improve, but more importantly, they’re not making any more oceans.’’

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com.

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