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Casinos vow to save gritty Massachusetts towns. But do they want saving? (+video)

Casino developers promise jobs, tourist dollars, and new investment in struggling cities. City officials see a boost for local budgets. But a growing anti-casino movement is pushing back.

It would guarantee the city $33 million in upfront payments and at least $25 million in annual payments if a casino is built entirely within the eastern Massachusetts city.
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There could be hotels that look like sugared layered cakes and terraces that seem to double as alien-spacecraft landing pads. There could be 4,000 slot machines and 20 poker tables. There could be luxe restaurants, fern-fringed promenades, and “intimate” lounges.

This is the $1.3 billion dreamscape that casino developer Mohegan Sun presented to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission on Wednesday in a 90-minute presentation that ended with a Dropkick Murphys track and applause almost as loud from supporters packing the hall. The cadence of the presentation was high-octane and hard-driving: Mohegan Sun hopes to make Revere, a threadbare city at Boston’s doorstep, into a thriving place, buoyed with tourist dollars and a major casino’s largess.

Or, in the words of Mohegan Sun’s unofficial slogan for Revere, plus casino: “It’s time to be remarkable again.”

But Mohegan Sun’s vision has competition. Wynn Resorts, a Las Vegas-based developer, is also vying for the lone casino resort license available in eastern Massachusetts. CEO Steve Wynn's pitch for a palatial, palm tree-brushed complex in Everett, a hard-up town next to a toxic waterfront, was somewhat muted, relative to the rousing show from Mohegan Sun. But his comments after the presentation were not: “We are their worst nightmare,” Mr. Wynn told reporters, referring to Mohegan Sun.

Another nightmare for Mohegan Sun – and perhaps for Wynn Resorts, too – might be one that was not a display at either presentation on Wednesday: a burgeoning anti-casino movement in the state to ensure that neither Revere nor Everett gets the nod.

These are the players: two casinos, the town officials and local supporters that back them, and a bristling anti-casino movement, in what has become as much a battle over where, if anywhere, to put the prospective casinos as a pitched debate about how to best help the Bay State's ailing communities. Proponents say that casinos will be the savior of these cash-strapped places; opponents say that they will be their ruin.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is expected to announce awarded licenses on May 30. Until then, the high-stakes game is expected to get only more intense.

In 2011, then-Gov. Deval Patrick (D) and a Democrat-controlled legislature did something surprising for a state where bingo was outlawed until 1931: They said yes to casinos – to three of them, to be exact, one in each of three designated regions. They also gave the OK to one single-slot facility in the state.

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His reasons were plain: the high-end casino developers that rushed to play their hands in Massachusetts offered attractive packages. Jobs would cascade into otherwise declining towns, and investment would restore wasted tracts of land. The state’s thinning budget also stood to grow flush from tax revenues and cuts of the profits.

Still, not everyone sees getting a casino in town as a lucky draw from the deck. Opponents see in casinos not boons, but fallout: heavier traffic, surging crime, tanking property values, and even more-stressed local businesses.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” says Scott Harshbarger, a former state attorney general and one of the leaders of an effort to repeal the 2011 casino law on the November ballot. He and his supporters have collected more than the 68,911 signatures needed to get the vote on the ballot but are now fighting the attorney general’s dismissal of the petition as unconstitutional.

Mr. Harshbarger says that casinos are a “quick fix” and a lackluster, often damaging, substitute for comprehensive investment in struggling towns and cities. “Whatever benefits casinos might produce, they come with huge costs,” he says. "The state gets addicted to cheap political revenue and the costs are incurred by local small businesses."

“We can do better," he adds.

Many voters have agreed with him. Under the state’s casino law, developers must win voter approval from the community that will host the casino, and batting back worries about crime and traffic has at times proved a tough hand for developers to play, with voters saying “no” at polls across the state.

Foxwoods, the Connecticut-based casino chain, was voted out of the town of Milford on Nov. 19 and fled the state altogether; a previous proposal from Wynn was scrapped in Foxborough, home to the New England Patriots, after anti-casino candidates won town elections; and Mohegan Sun’s earlier project lost a close vote in Palmer, a tiny former mill town.

Just three casinos are still up for licenses here: Mohegan Sun and Wynn are competing for the eastern Massachusetts spot; MGM Resorts, with its $800 million casino proposal for Springfield, is the only applicant for western Massachusetts; the license for southern Massachusetts is expected to go to a local tribe, but progress there has stalled.

The road to Mohegan Sun was a long one. Suffolk Downs, a charmingly gritty thoroughbred racetrack abutting Boston, first partnered with casino giant Caesars Entertainment to propose a resort straddling the East Boston and the Revere city line that cuts through the Suffolk Downs acreage. But just three weeks before local votes on the project, Caesars was forced to table its plans, after allegations emerged of connections to a Russian mob.

Nonetheless, a vote was held without an actual casino developer. On Nov. 5, in a microcosm of the statewide split on casinos, voters in East Boston defeated a plan to put a phantom casino in their city, with 56 percent against. Across the racetrack, Revere residents backed a would-be casino through, with some 60 percent in favor. 

Suffolk Downs regrouped and in late November announced that it had found a new partner, Mohegan Sun. This time, Suffolk Downs proposed putting the casino on just the Revere side of the 50-acre racetrack, keeping it outside Boston lines and skirting opposition there.

The new Mohegan Sun proposal is now awaiting Revere voters’ decision on Feb. 25. Meanwhile, Mohegan Sun is sweetening the pot to woo Revere locals.

At its presentation on Jan. 23, Mohegan Sun staff passed out red and blue T-shirts, buttons, and stickers to supporters. Slick videos promised that Revere, a former tourist destination and home to the oldest public beach in the US, could recover from hard times with Mohegan Sun’s help.

Casino officials recapped their agreement with Revere, which includes promises to pay the city $33 million before the casino even opens, to commit $44 million to other investment, and to turn over at least $25 million to the city a year. Other benefits include hiring preferences for locals. The casino says it will create 2,500 constructions jobs, plus 4,000 full-time jobs once the casino opens.

Mohegan Sun and Revere officials often cite a New York Times reporter’s account of the deal as “the most lavish host community pact in the state.”

That pact has stirred some support there. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Revere locals, keeping warm inside the city’s Elks Lodge, talked about the casino’s promise of good-paying jobs in a city that needs them.

“We’re struggling,” says Charlotte Paradise, a Revere resident of 67 years who receives disability benefits. “It’s hard to get a job here.”

Across the street, at Hamouda Barber Shop, owner Mohammed Elbzyouy said he hoped that the city, and his barber shop, would be jumpstarted with casino-goers’ bucks. “They’ll need haircuts,” he says, of future tourists.

The Mohegan Sun proposal has also found favor here as a last-ditch attempt at saving Suffolk Downs, which has not been profitable for some seven years but still has a place in local hearts. 

“Without gaming development, we’re just about out of options for the racetrack,” says Suffolk Downs Chief Operating Officer Chip Tuttle, speaking to the Monitor after a press conference on Wednesday.

But perhaps the strongest motivation for Revere to vote “yes” is that if Revere doesn’t get a casino, neighboring Everett might. And while Everett has applied for surrounding community status for Revere’s possible casino – a position that would allow it to negotiate for benefits from Mohegan Sun –  Revere’s mayor declined to apply for that status with Wynn Resorts.

Joseph Catricala, a spokesperson for Don’t Gamble on Revere, an opposition group formed in December, called Mayor Daniel Rizzo’s decision not to apply for surrounding community status a “scare tactic.”

“He’s essentially saying, if we don’t get the casino, we will get nothing, and we will have chosen that for our city,” he says. “We’ll get some of the same negatives and none of the benefits.”

Mr. Catricala says that if the casino is voted out of Revere, the group will turn its attention to overturning the 2011 casino law, in order to ensure that Everett doesn’t get a casino either.

But Mayor Rizzo says that he chose not to bid for surrounding community status to ensure that his city gets what he really wants for it: its own casino.

“I’m a very loyal person,” he told the Monitor, after the press conference on Wednesday. “I wasn’t going to negotiate with a competitor.”

“And when it comes to Texas Hold’em,” he says, “I’m all in.”

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