(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
Lifelong East Boston resident Jennifer McHugh says the math just doesn’t add up.
When McHugh looks at the proposal for a $1 billion resort casino in her neighborhood unveiled recently by Suffolk Downs and Caesars Entertainment, she’s not convinced by claims that most of the jobs will go to local residents.
And if they do go to residents, she wonders, how does that square with claims that most workers will take public transportation rather than drive to work? Would East Boston residents take the Blue Line to their jobs at the proposed casino when it would be more convenient to drive their cars? And could the casino management really keep the thousands of daily visitors from clogging local surface streets?
“That’s a great idea; however you really have no control over that,” McHugh said. “You can’t control what your consumers are going to do.”
McHugh was one of two dozen area residents who stood up at Tuesday’s packed first public meeting for East Boston residents to speak directly to executives from Suffolk Downs and Caesars.
While more than half had pointed questions and criticisms of the casino proposal, others spoke of Suffolk Downs as a good neighbor that could be trusted, a place where the leadership made promises to the community and kept them. Each portion of the casino proponents’ presentation was met with enthusiastic applause.
Suffolk Downs and Caesars revealed their designs for the casino last Tuesday and then a traffic plan on Friday. Chip Tuttle, the racetrack’s chief operating officer, said in the coming weeks they will roll out detailed plans on issues including jobs, business partnerships, entertainment partnerships, public safety, and ways to enhance the local tourism economy.
They will also be speaking with the community in smaller groups. Following a Wednesday night meeting in Revere, racetrack officials plan to appear in the coming weeks at meetings of the neighborhood groups in the Orient Heights, Eagle Hill, and Jeffries Point neighborhoods of East Boston.
John Payne, president of enterprise shared services for Caesars Entertainment stressed the casino chain’s practice of partnering with local businesses, saying its New Orleans casino works with 30 nearby restaurants and 10 hotels, spending $11 million last year with local restaurateurs, hoteliers, and sporting events.
Payne also said that in the chain’s four-week-old casino in Cleveland it had hired 92 percent of its staff from the surrounding community. “And of course we would do that with at least 92 percent here in Boston,” he said.
But the executives’ efforts could not allay all the community’s concerns, which included the possibilities of increased crime and traffic, air and light pollution, insufficient parking for the visitors to the casino, and whether mitigation efforts would come close to addressing the issues the casino could create.
Most of the tough questions came from active members of No Eastie Casino, a grassroots group that arose last year to challenge any attempt to bring a casino to the neighborhood, no matter how sweet the promises sounded.
But others came from citizens without visible alliances to the anti-casino group, who were just concerned about how a casino would affect their quality of life, and their families’, and their neighbors’.
John Ribeiro, founder of No Eastie Casino, was first in line with questions, asking whether Tuttle expected to see more crime in the area if the casino is built and why it was necessary to bring in former Boston police commissioner Paul F. Evans, one of the architects of the “Boston Miracle” of the 1990s, to run their security operations.
Tuttle and Evans said the former commissioner was there as a safeguard against a rise in crime. They said he was studying successful security tactics at other casinos around the country to bring the best practices back to Suffolk Downs.
Asked by another resident whether the casino would set aside a portion of its profits to address social ills it could engender, including gambling addiction, Tuttle said the state law enabling casino gambling had included generous funding for addiction treatment and touted Suffolk Downs’ work with the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling.
“We understand there is a small percentage of people for whom this is not a healthy activity and are committed to addressing that,” Tuttle said.
Several speakers expressed concern about Caesars Entertainment’s approximately $20 billion in debt. Payne allowed that Caesars is a “highly leveraged company” but Tuttle said the casino chain is a “great partner” for Suffolk Downs and that he is confident in their ability to fund the $1 billion project and to make a success of it.
One resident, who said she has lived for 35 years on Waldemar Avenue, right next to the track, summed up the feelings of many who believe the racetrack has been a good neighbor.
“Everything you ever said, you did,” she said to Tuttle. “Suffolk Downs are men of their word.”
Speaking after the meeting, City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina said he was pleased with its civil tone and hoped the community input would remain at such a high level as the city works with Suffolk Downs and Caesars toward a mitigation agreement.
“I thought this was a productive meeting,” LaMattina said. “I want the community to stay engaged and come up with an appealing agreement that works for the neighborhood and makes sure we hold their feet to the fire.”
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)