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East Boston Chamber of Commerce recommends casino benefits for local businesses

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  February 22, 2013 03:39 PM

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Suffolk Downs casino.jpg

Elkus Manfredi Architects

An architectural rendering of the proposed Suffolk Downs resort casino.

The East Boston Chamber of Commerce has issued an ambitious set of proposals that would put it at the center of mitigation efforts for a $1 billion resort casino proposed for Suffolk Downs in partnership with Caesars Entertainment.

The business organization has publicly supported building a casino at the thoroughbred racetrack for more than five years but has concerns about possible effects on the neighborhood and local businesses.

Its 18-page plan, called a “prosperity agenda,” addresses those concerns by recommending mitigation funds be used to spark development on the neighborhood’s underused waterfront and improve its four major business districts.

The report quotes the saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” but a neighborhood casino opponent disagrees.

“I think it’s going to be more like a giant whirlpool that’s going to suck all the money out of the local economy,” said Celeste Myers, co-chair of No Eastie Casino, a grassroots group that emerged last year to oppose the casino proposal.

“I wish this were the answer to all our problems, but it’s not. It’s going to be a net loss on a lot of factors,” Myers said.

Diane J. Modica, president of the chamber’s board of directors, said the organization wouldn’t have accomplished anything by focusing on potential negative outcomes. Instead, she said, it considered potential benefits and took a collaborative approach toward bringing them to fruition.

“Why not be at the forefront and say, 'If this happens, this where we want to see resources applied.'?” Modica said.

The report notes community concerns but says existing studies of casino impacts are contradictory and inconclusive. For that reason, the report says, the chamber surveyed casino impacts in five other urban communities — Cincinnati, Cleveland, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and St. Louis — and looked to reduce negative effects.

But unlike casinos in those cities, Suffolk Downs is not adjacent to a business district but abuts a mostly residential neighborhood. The report says its location makes it necessary to devise connections “to prevent the casino from becoming an inward focusing island.”

Under its plan, the chamber would work with the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau to promote neighborhood attractions and with Suffolk Downs to develop excursion packages drawing resort guests into the surrounding community.

Modica said visitors currently come to East Boston for singular attractions such as restaurants, parks, or its arts scene. She’d like them to know the neighborhood has multiple attractions and to come experience them all.

“That’s the idea, to draw them there, to keep them busy all day, and to send them home happy,” she said.

The chamber began sharing the plan late last year with Suffolk Downs, elected officials, and members of the mayor’s Host Community Advisory Committee, a five-member body appointed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino to ensure that the interests of the city, its residents, and local businesses are represented in the Host Community Mitigation Agreement required in the casino statute.

The chamber has begun presenting the plan to neighborhood organizations, with plans to continue in the coming weeks, Modica said.

Its recommendations include creating a new image for the neighborhood based on its multicultural character, maritime history, water access, and Boston skyline views, while also making improvements to its business districts and providing business owners with support in planning, financing, and marketing.

Under the plan, the chamber would pursue these goals for business districts in Maverick Square, Central Square, Day Square, and Orient Heights:

  • Make capital improvements and use design guidelines and architectural changes to create a distinct identity for each.

  • Create cleaner, safer, more vibrant street environments that are safe and welcoming for pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers, and mass transit.

  • Address retail space limitations that limit possibilities for creating new businesses or expanding existing ones.

  • Develop an ambassador program, similar to the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, to welcome and help visitors, provide access to resources, and offer a visible security presence.

The chamber would supplement impact studies required during the proposal period with follow-up studies at three-year intervals to assess the casino’s effects on neighborhood businesses and the local economy.

The plan would also expand the chamber and enlarge its role in the local economy, adding additional staff and partnering with other community stakeholders. Modica said that as the neighborhoood’s premier business organization, with a five-decade track record, the chamber is the natural choice for protecting the interests of local business owners.

“This isn’t all about the chamber feathering its own nest,” she said. “These are things that clearly the whole community could benefit from.”

Modica said East Boston is unlikely to see negative impacts that have followed casinos in some other cities, such as Atlantic City, N.J., because the Massachusetts statute includes protections not present in other states.

She said the chamber understands the casino opponents’ concerns and appreciates their raising issues that will have to be addressed in the mitigation agreement. Neighborhood residents, she said, are naturally skeptical.

“East Boston has a long history of trying to protect itself from outsiders coming in and basically having their way and leaving us with more impacts than certainly we deserve or need,” she said.

Myers said she wasn’t satisfied with the chamber’s study; that it didn’t go deep enough or include enough specifics about how it would enact its plan.

“My overall reaction based on what they’re holding up for sources and studies, I feel like a lot of this information they received from Suffolk Downs or casino proponents,” she said. “I feel like this isn’t so much a deep study as a book report.”

Myers expressed concern about whether the casino would really create the 4,000 long-term jobs for local residents that Suffolk Downs and Caesars Entertainment have touted, and how many of them would pay a real living wage.

She said the casino would likely absorb much of the disposable income of residents in the largely working-class community, money that would have otherwise gone into local businesses.

Modica and Myers agreed on one thing: East Boston residents need to be informed about the casino and potential effects on the community.

“I tell people to make the decision that’s best for them, but don’t do it before you know what that is,” Myers said.

“The more people that know about this, hopefully the more that get invested in it,” Modica said.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow East Boston on Twitter: @YourEastBoston.

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