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Foxborough selectmen deal blow to casino plan

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / December 27, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH — Selectmen last night dealt a blow to a casino proposal by Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn, declaring that the town is unwilling to host the resort and that the board will not enter into negotiations with Wynn over terms for having a casino in town.

The 3-2 vote does not formally kill the proposal, but sets up a significant headwind should Wynn decide to continue to pursue his plans.

“This is informal, but it is instructive,” said Town Manager Kevin Paicos, who opposes the Wynn plan. “…This is an epic step for the board.”

Hundreds of Foxborough residents packed the selectmen’s meeting, the public’s first chance to speak out on a proposed casino in such a high-profile forum.

Wynn has proposed a $1 billion hotel resort for land off Route 1 owned by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

The meeting came hours after Kraft circulated a letter demanding the right to be heard.

“All Foxborough residents should have the opportunity to see a proposal and provide feedback,” Kraft wrote in a letter published online and in the local media. “If it’s not right for Foxborough, they will vote it down, but the proposal should be heard and the democratic process should be followed.”

Proponents outside last night’s meeting agreed, holding signs that demanded “Democracy” and insisting that voters be allowed to hear the proposal and decide on it in a townwide vote.

But opponents decried the proposal: “Two great white sharks are circling Foxborough,” shouted resident Helen Meritan, a casino opponent, referring to the two billionaires behind the casino proposal.

Selectwoman Lorraine Brue moved that the board declare the town is not interested in hosting a casino. On a divided board, Selectman Mark Sullivan was the swing vote, siding with the casino opponents for passage.

He said the “pressure” he felt over the issue ruined his Christmas and spurred him to put his phone in his garage to get away from the calls.

Sullivan said he visited Gillette Stadium and asked the Kraft family to withdraw the proposal. He said the Krafts told him that they deserved the right to have the proposal fully heard.

Wynn had dangled some enticing carrots in an effort to win support. He said the project would create thousands of jobs, through direct employment at the resort and through the casino’s business dealings with local suppliers and service vendors. He has also estimated that the development would pay at least $10 million per year in local taxes, which the town could use to bolster services or lower property taxes.

Paicos said Wynn could still come forward with a formal proposal that explains the project, estimates the potential costs to the town — such as traffic, demands on police, fire and schools, extra work for town inspectors — and proposes ways for the developer to pay for the costs.

Wynn and Kraft could also still host a community meeting to explain the project, and could continue their campaign to build community support in hopes that public pressure in favor of the project could flip a vote on the board.

Through hours of debate last night, casino supporters sought to turn the discussion away from gambling and toward the rights of townspeople to hear Wynn’s pitch and make an informed decision. Dan Flynn, a casino proponent, told the board that the debate has become about something more than casinos. “I think this has become an issue of rights,” he said. He wants the right to vote on the project.

In an interview, Flynn said, “If opponents get enough votes to defeat it, then fine for them. But let the people hear it.”

Opponents urged the board not to let Foxborough, the home of the Patriots, become known as the town with a casino.

“Put simply, a casino would be a permanent stain on the fabric on our town,” said resident Greg MacKinnon. “A casino will not leave Foxborough better off for generations to come.”

Kraft said in his public letter:

“It concerns me that in these uncertain economic times some do not want to allow their fellow citizens the right to hear a proposal.”

Kraft also said he would never support a development that hurt the character of Foxborough, where he has invested most of his family’s wealth.

“If nothing else, I hope that my 25-year history here has established a strong track record of doing what we’ve said we would do,” he wrote.

Legislation to legalize casino gambling, which Governor Deval Patrick signed this year, authorizes up to three resort-style casinos in Massachusetts and one slots-only gambling parlor. One casino would be built in each of three regions established by the legislation. Foxborough is in the Greater Boston/Worcester region, and would compete for development rights with a proposal at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, and potentially a second proposal for Milford.

The Foxborough casino plan had a rocky rollout in early December, and the proposal immediately sparked fierce resistance from a hastily organized citizens group, No Foxboro Casino.

Opponents have pressured selectmen to kill the proposal before Wynn has a chance to present his vision to the town; hundreds of opponents hooted against the proposal at a selectmen’s meeting two weeks ago.

The town’s Advisory Committee has also tried to derail the project, voting 11-0 to recommend that selectmen reconsider the invitation to hear from Wynn and instead take the temperature of the town with a more general vote on whether the people want to entertain any casino proposals.

Those in favor of the project organized their own group, Jobs for Foxboro. Wynn hired a Boston political consultant to organize the on-the-ground campaign to build local support, and reached out to residents individually with letter sent to some 8,000 households.

Scott Farmelant, a spokesman for Jobs for Foxboro, said yesterday that it would be unfair to turn down any major development proposal before hearing the details.

“Let people hear about it and make up their own minds,” he said. “It’s called democracy.”

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