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Ready to roll

After years of give-and-take, a huge Dave & Buster’s entertainment complex is poised to open in Braintree, amid guarded optimism from officials

By Jessica Bartlett
Globe Correspondent / November 27, 2011
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Eight months after Braintree’s Licensing Board approved Dave & Buster’s application for a 170-game, 33,000-square-foot restaurant and arcade at the South Shore Plaza, not everyone in town is convinced that it was a good idea.

“I’m mostly concerned about crime,’’ said Linda Kopkind, a Braintree resident. “I’m thinking crime will increase in the parking lot area, and perhaps in the residential areas - from patrons hanging around in the parking lot, or as they are leaving the establishment.

“I’m concerned that people will go and hang around there,’’ she said, leading to “underage drinking both outside and inside. I hope I’m wrong.’’

The stigma attached to the establishment is nothing new.

Dave & Buster’s, a Dallas-based company with 58 establishments in 26 states, has endured a three-year process to open its first outpost in Massachusetts. Its initial attempt, in Burlington, was denied. When plans came before the Braintree Planning Board in October 2010 and before the Licensing Board in March, town officials got an earful about how the arcade, combined with a bar, would bring unsavory elements to the area.

As a result, the Planning Board imposed 54 conditions aimed at ensuring a smooth and orderly operation. Among them were requirements that D&B return to the board in nine months for a review of the business; contribute to a safety fund for the town, which will pay for a new police car; serve alcohol only in the bar and not in the gaming areas; and maintain an exterior security system in addition to the usual interior one.

Although public opinion hasn’t been entirely won over, local officials expect Dave & Buster’s to provide a financial boost to the mall and the town overall.

As for D&B executives, they say the Braintree experience can prove that the company is a good fit for Massachusetts.

“I think that I have a cautious optimism,’’ said Joe Powers, Braintree’s town clerk and the chairman of the Licensing Board. “They have presented themselves as a partner that is willing to work with the town. They understand the value of the licenses they’ve been granted, but we still have to begin the process of beginning a beneficial and long-term professional relationship.’’

Powers is sure that when the restaurant opens on Dec. 12, interest in the facility will be awakened. Especially as it will open during the busy holiday shopping season, the challenges could be cumbersome, he said.

Yet the longer the restaurant operates in town, the better the public perception will be, Powers predicted.

“I’m hopeful as people get to know the business model better, and people understand what it really is, I think that will go a long way to eliminate the concerns people have about the establishment,’’ he said.

Other town officials are already seeing a positive impact.

According to Peter Morin, chief of staff and operations for the town, Dave & Buster’s is the most successful restaurant model out there.

Not only will it also help generate business, it will give a big boost to property tax revenue. The previous tenant, Circuit City, generated about $86,000 a year in property taxes. The entertainment complex is expected to yield $160,000 to $175,000 annually.

The licensing fees, an annual $100 for each of the building’s 170 gaming machines - from Dance Dance Revolution to Spin N’ Win - and an annual tab for serving liquor, will also increase the town’s revenue.

Not to mention the jobs - more than 1,700 people applied for 320 positions at the business, which were promised to be given preferentially to Braintree residents.

“It’s easily tripling the amount of revenue we were receiving. Plus it’s generating new jobs, and construction jobs over the last several months for a number of workers as well,’’ Morin said. “It’s adding vitality to our economic base, and we want to make sure it’s an enhancement for the community.’’

Although there have been small glitches in the construction of the facility - and ensuring that the engineers build exactly what is on the town’s plans - Morin said the company has been easy to work with.

As for concerns, research into other stores in suburban-like settings has shown no increase in crime and a minimal and short-lived impact on traffic, Morin said.

If anything, Braintree and the South Shore Plaza should be thrilled that a D&B is coming to Massachusetts, said Paco Underhill, a New York-based retail analyst and authority on mall culture.

According to Underhill, chief executive officer of Envirosell, entertainment is the new anchor tenant of the mall culture.

“If I’m the operator, that’s a very successful lease,’’ Underhill said. “Most shopping mall owners are trying to make the transition from being landlords to being place-makers. And having entertainment destinations in your shopping mall contributes to place-making.’’

As for the concerns about D&B being akin to a gambling establishment and bringing crime to the area, he said: “It has historically been a place for birthday parties and gatherings. The games are innocent. It is the next step up from Chuck E. Cheese’s. If you take your 5-year-olds to Chuck E. Cheese’s, you’ll take your 12-year-olds to Dave & Buster’s.’’

Those arguments didn’t help D&B in its other attempt to enter the Bay State.

In Burlington, the owner of a vacant 12-acre lot off Route 128 at the Middlesex Turnpike is suing the town for rejecting a D&B at his location.

According to the 39-page decision issued at the end of June, Burlington denied the permit for reasons that included the traffic configuration of the site, a lack of zoning for arcades, the architecture of the proposed building, and the operation’s proposed size - more than 40,000 square feet.

The overall complaints don’t make sense to Underhill. “Why would you complain about that and think differently about a Hard Rock Café, or a Cheesecake Factory, or a TGI Friday’s?’’ he said.

As for the concerns over alcohol service, he said, “We have family dining chain after family dining chain that serves alcohol. It’s the responsibility of management to maintain decorum. If they fail to or have a history of not doing it, then they shouldn’t be in business.’’

According to D&B staff, Burlington is in the minority.

“We get requests every day’’ to come to different towns, April Spearman, vice president of marketing, wrote in an e-mail, “and we are always looking for great locations to bring our brand of fun and excitement to new areas. We are thrilled to finally open a store in Massachusetts, and we look forward to being part of the Braintree community.’’

Members of D&B staff are confident that once the Braintree establishment opens for business, people’s negative perceptions will disappear.

“We hope that by offering our brand of dining and entertainment, that we will be a destination for the community. We hope to make a great mall even better,’’ Spearman said.

Even Kopkind, who has had concerns since the beginning, said she’s keeping an open mind.

“If I’m proven wrong, and my concerns didn’t materialize,’’ Kopkind said, “I would be thrilled.’’

Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett@gmail.com.

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