Hundreds of people jammed into Tewksbury Memorial High School this evening for a Special Town Meeting on a zoning change sought by supporters of the proposed $200 million Merrimack Valley Casino.
Town meeting members arrived as early as 5 p.m., for Tuesday night's Special Town Meeting, which began at 7.
"If this casino goes through, the selectmen will have the money they need, so that the South Tewksbury fire station will never have to close again," said resident Tom King, 63, who held a green "Yes For
Tewksbury" sign at the entrance to the high school.
King, a courier for an ad agency, said he's tired if budget pressures that have trimmed fire protection and other services in town. "We have had budget constraints for years and years," he added.
Gerry Archiprete, 64, a union electrician who also lives in town, said the casino will make Tewksbury a destination.
"The only thing you ever see opening in Tewksbury is a pizza shop or a gas station," he said as he stood with other union workers, some of whom do not live in town."There is nothing to bring people here. This will do that."
Opponents opted not to stand outside with signs, said Ann Buskey, a "Vote No" supporter.
"We decided not to hold signs, because we felt it was more important to be inside to vote," Buskey said.
Town Clerk Denise Graffeo estimated 1,200-1,300 voters had checked in for the meeting.
There were 146 new registered voters in the run-up to Tuesday's Special Town Meeting, where residents will vote on a zoning article that would allow the $200 million Merrimack Valley Casino to be built in town.
The new registrations were recorded from July 1 to Aug. 9, the deadline to register to vote in the town meeting. The new voters boost the town's total number of registered voters to 20,951, said Graffeo.
"We definitely had a steady flow of people registering," Graffeo said on Monday. "How many were because of the casino, I can't say for sure."
Penn National Gaming announced on July 9 its proposal to build a casino that would have a 24-hour slot parlor, a Doug Flutie sports bar, a two-screen movie theater with in-seat dining, a food court, and another restaurant to be named later.
The development is proposed for 30 acres of land at the Ames Pond Corporate Center, located just off Route 133, near the Andover border.
But the area now is zoned for office/research use. New zoning proposed would create the Ames Pond Overlay District, which would allow the casino to be built on the land. A 2/3 majority vote is required for the zoning amendment to be adopted.
Before tonight's vote, Graffeo was gearing up for a big crowd. Extra poll workers were to be on hand, and voters who have not voted in recent elections or special town meetings were urged to bring identification with them so that they may participate in the meeting, Graffeo said.
"It has to have their name and current address," she said.
A driver's license, a utility bill, a bank or mortgage statement, or a pay check are among the form of identification that will be accepted, she added.
Penn National is one of four casino companies that has applied to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission for the one license available to operate a slot parlor.
The town has signed a host community agreement with Penn, which would generate anywhere from $3.5 million to $5 million in new revenues, annually. The agreement is required by the state's gambling law.
Penn National's proposal has roused intense interest in this town of nearly 30,000 people. A campaign called "Vote Yes for Tewksbury," heavily backed by the electrician's union Local 103 and financed by Penn National, has been lobbying support for the zoning measure.
On Monday, Flutie appeared at a pre-vote rally, greeting more than 100 supporters at the Long Meadow Golf Club, located on the Lowell/Tewksbury line.
But opponents -- who fear an increase in traffic, crime and quality of life -- have staged their own events. A meeting on Aug 13, attended by former State Sen. Susan Tucker of Andover, urged residents to consider more than just the promise of new jobs and revenues.
"I don't believe that a slot parlor should be in a residential neighborhood," Ann Buskey, a mother of two and a former school committee member, wrote in an e-mail. "This property abuts homes, abuts neighborhoods where children are waiting for the school bus . . . I am not an abutter, but I am concerned about the safety of my children, and the children in the immediate vicinity."
The Special Town Meeting is one of two chances Tewksbury voters will have to weigh in on Penn's proposal. On Sept. 21, a special town election will be held, where voters will be asked to approve a referendum to allow a slot-parlor to locate in its community. The local referendum is a key step of the state's gambling law.
If zoning proposal is defeated tonight, the special election must still be held, Town Counsel Charles Zaroulis said.
"Once an election is scheduled, it must go forward," Zaroulis said.
Kathy McCabe/Globe Staff
Kathy McCabe can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe