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Survey shows opposition to East Boston casino plan, lack of public knowledge on proposed development

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  February 26, 2013 02:41 PM

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Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com

Community Alliance member Magdalena Ayed, who lives near Maverick Square, spoke at an event announcing the results of the survey.

As East Boston braces for sweeping changes, many residents say they are short on information and concerned about potential downsides to a proposed resort casino, the authors of a community survey said.

A group of residents calling themselves the Community Alliance worked with Neighbors United for a Better East Boston; resident Neenah Estrella-Luna, a Northeastern University professor of public policy; and Northeastern graduate students to conduct a summer 2012 survey asking residents what they knew and how they felt about proposed developments.

At a news conference on Monday, Tina St. Gelais Kelly, vice president of the Eagle Hill Civic Association, called on local elected officials to take a similarly data-driven approach to showing the purported benefits of a casino.

“I want them to slow down, research hard, so they can come out of this knowing that they did their very best for East Boston, and the job we elected them to do,” Kelly said.

Estrella-Luna, the Northeastern professor, has also spoken out publicly against the casino proposal.

The alliance said the survey shows the majority of residents oppose a $1 billion resort casino proposed for Suffolk Downs in partnership with Caesars Entertainment, and many living close to the neighborhood’s waterfront are uninformed about development projects planned for nearby sites.

The survey found most residents were aware of the casino proposal, regardless of demographics or location within East Boston. While half expected the casino would bring more jobs, 52 percent opposed the proposal. Only 24 percent supported it. Another 16 percent had no opinion, and 8 percent said they lacked sufficient information to form one.

Casino opposition was highest — 56 percent — among registered voters, who by law will have an opportunity to vote on the casino plan in a referendum. Casino support was highest among those with a high school education or less.

Residents surveyed expressed concern about possible casino side effects that included increased crime, traffic, air pollution, noise, and addictions of several varieties. They worried the casino would place extra pressure on police and fire departments.

About 42 percent said they expected residents to have less pride in the neighborhood if a casino is built.

In response to the survey, Suffolk Downs released a statement from Chip Tuttle, its chief operating officer, saying the racetrack had engaged with residents and the casino would benefit the community.

“We have been attending and holding community meetings — dozens so far — to brief neighbors and community groups on our plans to create thousands of jobs and improve local transportation, local concerns that have been issues in the community for decades,” Tuttle said in the statement.

“We believe our resort at Suffolk Downs will bring significant benefits to the East Boston and Revere communities and look forward to continuing our discussions,” Tuttle continued.

A spokesman for the Friends of Suffolk Downs, a pro-casino organization created by Suffolk Downs, said in an e-mail that 68 percent of 503 East Boston residents the group surveyed supported a casino at the racetrack, while only 19 percent opposed it. Thirteen percent of respondents were undecided.

On the issue of waterfront redevelopment, the Community Alliance survey found widespread support but some concerns about increased traffic, decreased parking, and gentrification pricing out working-class residents.

Residents of the Jeffries Point, Eagle Hill, and Orient Heights districts were most likely to be well-informed about proposed waterfront projects. Fewer than half of residents living near Maverick Square and Central Square — near the proposed redevelopment sites — knew about any waterfront proposals, and only 34 percent of Latino residents did. Lower income residents were also less likely to be informed.

Alliance member Magdalena Ayed, who lives near Maverick Square, said the lack of knowledge about these developments demonstrated a failure by developers.

“Our concern is that there is a lack of transparency and a failure to inform and engage the community in really understanding how the proposed harbor development will impact them,” Ayed said.

Eagle Hill Civic Association member Audrina Warren said part of the problem is that special community meetings are set up for each proposed project, rather than developers bringing their proposals to regularly scheduled meetings of established neighborhood organizations, requiring concerned residents to attend multiple meetings to stay informed.

Alliance member Leigh Hall agreed. “You could make a career out of going to meetings here and still miss half of them,” she said.

Hall said she had attended a recent community meeting hosted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority that drew only a few residents. “I call them stealth meetings,” she said.

Hall said there is an imbalance of power between the community and developers.

“Some of the developers that come in have an awful lot of money,” Hall said, “and I think they see us as this poor neighborhood, and if they bring in people who have more money that’s going to automatically make the neighborhood better. But we’re already a great neighborhood.”

Hall said she didn’t expect the survey to have much impact on Suffolk Downs and Caesars Entertainment, or on the city’s Host Community Advisory Committee, which will negotiate a mitigation agreement for the casino, but she hoped it would help dispel the notion that the casino was “a done deal.”

Anjie Preston, an East Boston resident since 1986, said the survey validated the feelings of casino opponents like herself who believe that the majority of their neighbors oppose the proposed casino.

“We have been saying this from day one, and hopefully this will create a groundswell among residents,” Preston said.

She was heartened, she said, to see at an October 2012 meeting at the Casa El Salvador that many-Spanish-speaking residents share the concerns and questions she has discussed with English-speaking neighbors.

“They weren’t getting answers to these questions any better than we’re getting answers to our questions,” Preston said.

Preston said what’s most important is that residents get informed about the casino proposal and vote based on facts, not rumors. She said opponents would work to see that casino proponents didn’t drown out community voices.

“They are on a mission, and so are we, and I hope the community wins over the politicians,” she 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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Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com

Tina St. Gelais Kelly, vice-president of the Eagle Hill Civic Association, spoke at the event on Monday.

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