(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
More than 100 members of East Boston’s large Latin American community brought their questions and concerns to a public meeting on a proposed casino at Suffolk Downs on Wednesday, but those hoping for quick answers went home disappointed.
Conducted mostly in Spanish, the meeting at the Casa El Salvador on Bennington Street was a chance for immigrants from El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and other Latin American nations to express support for and concerns about changes a $1 billion resort casino proposed by Suffolk Downs and Caesars Entertainment could bring to the community.
They asked about increased drug use and prostitution and how police and the casino would combat social ills, about increased traffic on Route 1A and whether there would be sufficient parking, about opportunities for local small businesses to operate within the resort complex, and about what will happen to families when fathers spend their paychecks gambling and there is no money to buy food for the children.
To most questions, the answers amounted to, “We’ll get back to you on that.”
At least one Suffolk Downs representative was in the room, but no one spoke on behalf of the racetrack or the casino chain. Instead, comments and questions were addressed by Elizabeth Dello Russo, an attorney for the city, and Tony Barros, a special assistant to Mayor Thomas M. Menino. The discussion was moderated by El Salvador's Consul General José Alemán.
Barros and Dello Russo told the crowd that the city and the mayor’s Host Community Advisory Committee are still collecting questions from residents and working to get answers that would be provided at a later meeting yet to be scheduled.
“That part is so important that we don’t want to rush that part,” Dello Russo said of the information gathering.
Barros said the casino could make the neighborhood a destination for travelers and expand its economy. He said the mayor would see that small business owners were protected and that all residents benefited from the growth.
“The mayor says if you’re making big money in my neighborhood, you have to spread it out among my people,” he said in Spanish.
But those responses were not enough to satisfy many who had taken the time to attend the Wednesday night meeting.
“I’ve heard a lot of good questions, but I’m not hearing answers,” Karla Jaramillo said to Barros and Dello Russo near the end of the forum. “My question for you guys is when are you coming back with answers?”
Jaramillo, who has lived in East Boston for more than 20 years and is fluent in Spanish, said in an interview after the meeting that many East Boston residents who don’t speak or read English will have trouble getting access to the basic facts about the casino plan.
She appreciated the city reaching out to the Latino community, Jaramillo said, but she expected more.
“I think they definitely wanted to listen, but we have voiced our concerns in other meetings and I would think that by now they would have come back with answers,” Jaramillo said.
Jaramillo said she has attended several public forums on the proposal and doesn’t believe Caesars Entertainment didn’t do extensive research before it ever put forward its $1 billion proposal.
“They have consultants that do this all day long,” she said of the casino chain. “I’m sure they have the money to spend. They’ve already done the research.”
Doris Rubio, an East Boston resident for more than 30 years, told the city officials she read that many restaurants had closed in Atlantic City, N.J., after casinos opened there and began handing out free food and alcohol. She said she was concerned about prostitution, the overall crime rate, car traffic.
“I could write a book about this,” Rubio said in Spanish.
Some in the Latino community were there to express support for the proposed casino. One called it “the best possible thing that could happen to … East Boston,” saying it would bring jobs and money to hire more police and improve education.
City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, an East Boston native who represents the neighborhood on the council, was held up at City Hall and arrived near the end of the meeting. He said there are still a lot of questions he needs answered, and he would withdraw his support for the casino plan if he’s not convinced it’s good for the community.
“For me personally, it has to benefit all of East Boston,” LaMattina said. “If it doesn’t benefit the neighborhood, I don’t support it.”
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)