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Foxborough prepares for heated casino debate

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / December 27, 2011
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Foxborough selectmen say they are prepared for a “robust’’ - if not downright heated - meeting tonight when they discuss whether the town should even entertain a proposal by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn to build a casino across from Gillette Stadium.

The town’s advisory committee is expected to recommend that selectmen poll Foxborough residents about whether they would support gambling in the town before officials entertain a casino proposal.

“Say that answer is, ‘Hey, we want gaming in Foxborough,’ then you listen to proposals by the Wynn group,’’ said John R. Gray Jr., who chairs the advisory committee. But first, he urged, “let’s find a mechanism to solicit the pulse of the citizens.’’

The meeting will include a presentation of the casino licensing process. It remains unclear whether any specific vote will take place.

Opinions have already started to divide Foxborough residents. A procasino group called Jobs for Foxboro says it is important to let residents hear all the facts about casinos and allow them to make their own decisions. Others supporting a grass-roots effort called No Foxboro Casino say the townspeople have voted against gambling in the past and should not have to wait for another vote to voice that opinion again.

Gray said he is concerned about Wynn and Kraft making a presentation on their plans for a casino to the selectmen in the coming weeks because that proposal is still developing. Any attention from town officials at this point, he said, could be viewed as validation of the proposal, even if it is vague or incomplete.

“This isn’t a [concrete] plan, this is a general sales pitch on the concept of gaming,’’ said Gray, who recommended that any such proposal be put directly before citizens and not town officials.

Jeff Cournoyer, a spokesman for the Kraft Group, said Kraft would probably have a representative at tonight’s meeting. The group has been working with Wynn Resorts to provide Foxborough town manager Kevin Paicos - who has said he is against gambling - with logistical information for the proposed casino presentation.

A Wynn Resorts spokesman could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Tensions in Foxborough surrounding the casino issue have increased in recent weeks, with residents packing town meetings as supporters on both sides of the issue held signs and occasionally booed one another.

Groups have even set up Web pages to voice their views and are also attracting supporters through social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter.

Over the weekend, a video posted to the No Foxboro Casino Facebook page took a veiled swipe at Kraft and Wynn as “snake oil’’ sellers with undue influence over “puppet’’ officials.

The video was later denounced by No Foxboro Casino, which called on its supporters to “be respectful.’’

“We are deeply disappointed to see this kind of negative messaging,’’ said the group’s spokeswoman, Holly Steel. “From day one, our group has made it very clear that we have nothing but the deepest respect for Mr. Kraft and all that he has done for the Foxboro community. Our anticasino message has been fact-oriented and aboveboard.’’

Foxborough selectmen are feeling the strain. Once united in their stance against gambling, they have more recently been split three to two on whether to consider a casino in the town.

Lawrence J. Harrington, who chairs the board, said he wants to hear a proposal from Wynn and Kraft and put the topic to voters.

“Eight years ago, [residents] voted a racino down, and a racino is very different than what’s being proposed here. And eight years ago was also a very different economic time,’’ Harrington said. “Today, Europe is nearly bankrupt, the United States is nearly bankrupt. Our debt ratings have dropped.’’

Scott Farmelant, a spokesman for Jobs for Foxboro, said the group plans tonight to present selectmen with a petition signed by hundreds of residents who want to hear a casino proposal.

“Foxborough residents surely can decide for themselves what’s best for their town, but should have all the facts before them before they make that decision,’’ he said.

Selectmen James J. DeVellis and Lorraine A. Brue, who have voted to stop casino discussions, did not return calls yesterday.

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.

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