Steve Wynn has dealt Everett a hand that, at least for that city’s voters, is too good not to play. The Las Vegas tycoon, seeking to nab one of the three Massachusetts casino licenses allowed under the 2011 gambling law, negotiated a deal with the gritty suburb north of Boston that will pay out at least $25 million annually in exchange for permission to build on a polluted site next to the Mystic River. If Everett voters approve the deal in a referendum on Saturday, Wynn would gain a toehold in the Boston market, while the city would hit the proverbial jackpot. In addition to the cash, Wynn’s plan would fix up many crumbling streets and open up public access to the river; he also promises to give city residents first crack at the 4,000 jobs the upscale casino will create. For a small city with a decayed industrial base, high property taxes, and limited economic prospects, Wynn offers a chance for a quick turnaround.
Yet for all the proposed benefits, the vote also exposes a shortcoming of the state’s casino-approval process. The law gives the host community an absolute veto, while leaving surrounding communities with only limited consultation. So it’s no surprise that Wynn has lavished goodies on Everett, while neighboring municipalities complain that they’ve been left out. But the impact of the casino will spill over in ways the law’s approval requirements fail to fully reflect. The site sits near the borders of Somerville, Medford, and Boston; many officials in those cities fear the plan’s impact on traffic and crime.
If Everett voters approve — and passage seems assured — then it will be up to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to subject the plan to a thorough regional analysis. For instance, the proposed casino would have to work in concert with the effort to revitalize Somerville’s Assembly Square, which is just across the river from the site. Taxpayers have poured $130 million into that project, a mix of housing, retail, and transit improvements meant to turn an old auto factory into a thriving urban neighborhood.
To its credit, the Wynn team hasn’t dodged questions, and can point to benefits that will help the whole region, not just Everett. Cleaning up the site, a former Monsanto chemical plant, would be no small achievement, and would advance the longstanding regional goal of restoring the much-neglected Mystic River. Wynn’s plans to make water transportation a major part of the development — running ferries connecting Logan Airport, downtown, and the casino’s front door — could ease the stress on roads and provide a template for new transit options for other Mystic communities. Promises to link a waterfront path next to the casino to other parks could knit together disconnected parts of the region’s bicycle infrastructure. And the fact that Wynn is a proven and reputable casino operator should increase confidence that he’d be a good neighbor.
Still, that leaves some issues Wynn will have to do a better job addressing if the plan goes forward. His traffic plan calls broadly for improvements on Broadway and access to Interstate 93, but the commission should insist on an independent analysis; roads between Everett and Boston are already highly congested, and a casino can’t be allowed to make an already difficult situation even worse. Meanwhile, in the Wellington area of Medford — which is closer to the planned casino than much of Everett itself — local restaurants and retailers fear a giant resort next door will drain away their customers. Massachusetts approved casinos as an economic tool, not a competitor to local businesses; Wynn needs to make sure that the experience in New York City, where a Queens casino seems to have hurt local establishments, isn’t repeated here.
Somerville, Medford, and Boston have been left out of the process.
Ultimately, the five-member gaming commission will have to pick among up to three proposals for the eastern part of Massachusetts: the Everett plan, and proposals still taking shape at Suffolk Downs in East Boston and by Foxwoods in Milford. The commissioners must weigh many factors. Which casino plan delivers the most jobs, investment, and ancillary benefits for the state? Can local roads manage the extra traffic? Are the possible social impacts of a casino in an urban setting disqualifying? The popular vote coming up in Everett is only a first step. The result matters, but can’t be considered the final word on whether the state goes all-in on Wynn’s intriguing vision.