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Casino issues could weigh on small towns’ resources

Foxborough officials discussed a casino proposal last month. One selectman said he has had 2,000 calls and e-mails on the plan.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Foxborough officials discussed a casino proposal last month. One selectman said he has had 2,000 calls and e-mails on the plan.

While about 700 people waited last month for Foxborough selectmen to open debate on a $1 billion casino, the board took care of some other business - deciding whether a golden retriever needed to be restrained.

“Typically we [on the board] deal with alcohol situations, personnel issues, the annual budget,’’ Foxborough Selectman Mark Sullivan said. “We had a dog park issue a couple of years ago that was pretty emotional.’’

But now Sullivan and his four colleagues are being forced to navigate between an angry electorate and a savvy world-class developer lured by the promise of millions in casino profits.

The state’s legalization of casino gambling is putting unprecedented demands and pressures on part-time local officials, calling into question whether volunteer citizen boards are equipped to handle casino proposals pushed by some of the richest companies in the world.

“I don’t think anybody on the board ever signed up for this,’’ said Sullivan, who has received about 2,000 calls and emails about the Route 1 casino proposal pitched by Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn for land next to Gillette Stadium. “There’s awesome, awesome pressure, by townspeople, developers, the media. It’s just constant.’’

Many of the casino companies interested in competing for development rights under the state’s expanded gambling law have gravitated toward small towns led by part-time, virtually unpaid elected officials where large tracts of open land are available.

The operators of the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut are proposing a resort in Palmer, population 11,500. MGM Resorts International last week announced development plans for Brimfield, population of about 3,500. The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which under the law has a head start toward winning the development rights for a casino in the southeastern part of the state, is said to be investigating sites in numerous small towns around the South Shore.

In Middleborough, Selectman Allin Frawley said he saw firsthand how difficult it is for small town boards to process a casino proposal. In 2007, the Wampanoag Tribe, backed by wealthy investors, agreed to build a casino in Middleborough, though later abandoned those plans.

“The whole process is slanted toward the billionaires,’’ Frawley said. “You’re asking five volunteers, in less than a year, to assess the impacts of a $500 million project. You’re dealing with laypeople who are trying to discuss these things with professionals. I have a better chance of beating Mike Tyson in a boxing match.

“It’s not fair to put this on five people in a small town,’’ he said.

Under the state law that legalized casino gambling, small town boards are not completely on their own; the law provides money for communities to hire expert help. The money will come from the $400,000 application fee developers will pay in order to compete for development rights; at least $50,000 from each of those payments will be used to reimburse host communities and surrounding towns for the cost of hiring consultants. Officials in tiny Brimfield, for example, are already talking about hiring an expert to help them determine how an MGM casino would affect the town.

But Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said he is confident that small towns, with the right expert help, can hold their own with developers. He noted that most town boards lean heavily on in-house professionals, such as town managers and planning directors, who can provide expert advice and analysis.

In Foxborough, for instance, Town Manager Kevin Paicos has been focused nearly singlemindedly on the Wynn casino proposal, devoting about 75 percent of his time to it since the announcement last month.

“Communities do extremely complicated things on a regular basis - major developments, multicommunity enterprises, coordination with the state on complex contracts,’’ Beckwith said in an interview.

The current concerns about small towns dealing with casino proposals, he said, remind him of the hand-wringing over the spread of cable television in the 1970s and 1980s. “Many of the same arguments were made then,’’ he said, “. . . that these telecommunication companies were going to come in with resources that far outstrip the community, that it was highly technical and the community would be disadvantaged in any negotiation. And that was not the case.’’

For local officials under pressure from angry neighbors, “It is a hot seat, absolutely,’’ when a casino is proposed in town, said Beckwith. “But who better to deal with very concerned citizens than citizens themselves?’’

No casino proposal can win development rights without first winning the endorsement of local residents in a referendum. Casino opponents fear they will be severely outspent by billionaire developers during ballot campaigns, but former governor Michael Dukakis, who acknowledged he is “no fan’’ of the new casino law, is confident that citizens groups will overcome any disadvantage in spending.

“I don’t care what the political contest is. Good grass-roots organizing always beats money, no matter how much,’’ Dukakis said in an interview.

“I don’t think you have to worry too much about the communities’ ability to cope here.’’

Globe correspondent Michele Morgan Bolton contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark
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