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Among residents, casino bill invigorates opposition to gaming at Suffolk Downs

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  August 31, 2011 11:57 AM

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(Kayana Szymczak/Boston Globe/2010)

A scene from Suffolk Downs.

As lawmakers on Beacon Hill weigh a new gambling bill, residents of communities ringing Suffolk Downs are speaking out against bringing a slot parlor or casino to the racetrack.

In neighborhood meetings, at dinner tables, and on social media websites, residents of East Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop are expressing concerns that increased gambling would bring increased traffic and crime to the area while providing little economic benefit.

Some have spoken directly with State Representative Carlo Basile and State Senator Anthony Petruccelli, who both support expanded gaming, but say they came away unconvinced.

Neenah Estrella-Luna, a seven-year East Boston resident who teaches public policy at several area universities, said her community is already overburdened by industrial sites, hazardous materials storage, and the ever-expanding Logan International Airport.

“East Boston, and also Chelsea, and to some extent Revere, we’re already shouldering a lot of activities that benefit the state and the region, and yet we’re also low-income communities,” Estrella-Luna said in a phone interview. “We’re the last communities to have any kind of meaningful, good, clean, sustainable economic development being proposed for them. We’re the last communities to get any kind of attention to deal with quality-of-life issues.”

Estrella-Luna worked at a community health and environmental organization in Delaware when that state brought in new gaming. That position gave her an opportunity to see both the gaming industry’s unfulfilled promises and the social impacts on the community, she said.

“Those of us who were working on that kind of felt … they were promising things that weren’t going to happen, and sure enough, that’s exactly what happened,” she said. “What ended up being put in are these kind of low-end, primarily slots-parlor type places, in a fairly low-income community. So that’s what I suspect would happen at Suffolk Downs.”

So far, it’s unclear what could happen at Suffolk Downs, though management of the track has expressed interest in competing for a gaming license.

Unlike the failed 2010 legislation that would have guaranteed slot parlors to two racetracks in the state, the compromise bill introduced last week makes no promises to the tracks. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat whose district includes both Suffolk Downs and the Wonderland racetrack in Revere, surrendered that provision during closed-door negotiations between legislators and officials from the administration of Governor Deval Patrick.

This year’s bill would create three casinos and one slot parlor, all open to competitive bidding by any party that could afford at least $85 million for the casino license ($25 million for the slot parlor) and the $500 million minimum investment ($125 million for the slot parlor).

Tina St. Gelais Kelly, vice-president of the Eagle Hill Civic Association, worries that the social ills of gambling would far outweigh any potential benefits. In an email, she said gambling is an “addiction that ruins lives.”

“The state argues this casino will create jobs. Would they make cocaine legal if it produced jobs?” she wrote. “Addiction is addiction. Using it for revenue is irresponsible.”

St. Gelais Kelly said the neighborhood group has taken no official position on the new bill and was unlikely to do so, but few members have expressed support for casinos. Personally, she plans to continue advocating against bringing a casino to the area.

“East Boston is my home and will be for a long time, and until someone convinces me with facts that this is good for my community I will try my hardest to do what I can to stop it,” she wrote.

John Ribeiro lives in Winthrop and grew up in East Boston. He began trying to unite local residents to oppose gambling last year, when it appeared the previous bill had a good chance at passage. He created the Facebook page Suffolk Downs Neighbor to share his concerns, media coverage of the casino bills, and links to on-line petitions.

Currently, a petition linked on that page that opposes slot parlors or casinos in East Boston and Revere has 61 signatures.

Ribeiro was first concerned about the extra traffic gaming would create, fearing a return to the bad old days before the Ted Williams Tunnel, when it could take two hours to get from Eastie to a destination in another part of Boston. That led him to research the effects of casinos in other Northeast states, like Foxwoods, and what he saw dismayed him.

“I started to see that there’s a serious increase in crime that happens,” Ribeiro said in a phone interview, “that there’s an impact on small businesses in the immediate area, and it really doesn’t benefit the state all that much, either.”

Ribeiro said the problem is that casinos agree to provide communities with mitigation funds to offset the extra expenses for policing and infrastructure, but those funds typically level off over time, while the need to deal with increases in drunk drivers and property crimes does not.

Lifelong Chelsea resident John Dudley has also been active in the on-line campaign. In an e-mail, he decried the series of private meetings between legislators that created the new bill.

“That which is determined ‘behind closed doors’ has not the best interests of the masses in mind,” he wrote.

Dudley said he worries that having a casino in the area could increase not only traffic and property crimes, but also “bankruptcy, foreclosure, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, self-abuse and addiction (drug, alcohol, and gambling). …” And he thinks much of the money going into a casino at Suffolk Downs would be at the expense of independent business owners in the community.

“A good deal of local residents' income will no longer make it to the usual small local businesses, or back home,” he wrote. “[O]ther local visitor hotspots can say bye-bye to limited tourism dollars, when there's lodging, fine dining, nightlife, live entertainment, spa services, and casino gambling all under one roof.”

Still, there are some in the area who see a casino as a good thing. Marie A., who asked that her last name not be used because she has already “made a few enemies” by expressing her opinion, said she thinks a casino could bring a number of benefits.

“I think it would be a boon to our area — jobs , community income, and it would be quite nice to see perhaps music and live acts come along with a casino, as in my experience, people go to casinos for far more than simple gambling,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Marie A. is a student at a local community college and works nights as a bartender. She would be happy to work in a casino that’s close to her home and could provide a safer work environment. She thinks all the controversy around bringing a casino to the area would force it to be a good neighbor.

“There is far more to worry about in our town as far as security or crime goes than a casino,” she wrote, “which by its nature would have to keep close watch on how the community feels about it, especially considering how many people are against it ... thus being more secure.”

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jeremycfox.

Follow East Boston on Twitter: @EastBostonNews.

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