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Plan unveiled for Suffolk Downs casino

Developers want $1b ‘urban oasis’ at racetrack site

ELKUS MANFREDI ARCHITECTS

Developers proposing a Suffolk Downs casino offered the first public glimpse of their “urban oasis’’ Tuesday, outlining the broad concepts behind a billion-dollar reinvention of the Depression-era racetrack into a luxury gambling resort under the Caesars Entertainment brand.

Plans would retain thoroughbred racing at the site, which straddles East Boston and Revere; remodel the existing grandstands; and add a 300-room hotel and up to 10 restaurants, entertainment venues, retail shops and a spa, and 200,000 square feet of slot machines and Las Vegas-style table games.

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“This facility will add to the appeal of visitation in Boston and will grow rather dramatically the number of people who choose to come,’’ Gary Loveman, chief executive at Caesars, said in his remarks at the track.

Architect David Manfredi described his firm’s plans for the proposed billion-dollar casino at Suffolk Downs. While generally well-received, the plans were attacked as a poor fit for the neighborhood by the anticasino group No Eastie Casino.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Architect David Manfredi described his firm’s plans for the proposed billion-dollar casino at Suffolk Downs. While generally well-received, the plans were attacked as a poor fit for the neighborhood by the anticasino group No Eastie Casino.

The carefully orchestrated rollout of development plans included a short film and artist renderings of the modern glass-and-steel design, unveiled to reporters and a friendly crowd of more than 100 Suffolk Downs employees and supporters of the project.

With the track oval as a backdrop, pocked with hoofprints, architect David Manfredi said designers sought to “make the building transparent, make it connected to its environment, and make it specific to Boston.’’

The developers said the resort would create 2,500 construction jobs and 4,000 permanent jobs once it opens. They offered other attractive numbers, such as an estimate that the development would generate $200 million a year in new tax revenue for the state and local communities, and a promise to commit $40 million to improve local roads and intersections around the site.

What they did not explain is where they intend to raise $1 billion to build it. Caesars, which will operate the casino, has a small stake in the Suffolk Downs ownership group that must raise the money.

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Richard Fields, the largest stakeholder in the group, guaranteed that raising capital will be no problem. “Not an issue,’’ he said in a brief interview, smiling widely at the question. “Not an issue at all.’’

Suffolk Downs intends to compete for the sole resort casino license in the Greater Boston and Worcester area, which is expected to be the most lucrative license in Massachusetts. The state gambling commission can approve up to three casino resort projects around the state. The panel is not expected to make any decisions until next year.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston said in an interview that Suffolk Downs is “on the right track’’ with its plans. “It’s a design that is welcoming to folks who come to the resort casino, and I think it’s in keeping with the past.’’

“It’s a start,’’ said the mayor. “There’s a lot of other parts of this. There’s the financial, there’s the benefits to the community, the jobs, what it will do for small business in the community - all that is part of what this resort casino debate is about. It’s not the building.’’

Opponents quickly attacked the plans as a poor fit for the neighborhood.

“Finally, Suffolk Downs is showing us its hand, and it’s still a bad deal,’’ the anticasino group, No Eastie Casino, said in a statement. The group predicted the resort would increase traffic and crime, while further burdening an area that already hosts an international airport. “Over the last several years, East Boston’s low crime rate, affordable housing, and proximity to Boston and the North Shore have made it one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in the city. A casino is simply not in the vision many residents have for their neighborhood or Boston as a whole.’’

The group’s chairwoman, Celeste Myers, said in an interview that the casino would offer everything a visitor could want, “so no one needs to go out into the neighborhoods’’ to patronize local businesses.

Criticism also came from across city lines, with Revere city councilor Brian Arrigo saying his community was getting “the short end of the stick.’’

“In its current design, both hotels and the bulk of the new construction would occur on the East Boston side of the Suffolk Downs property,’’ he said. “This leaves the city of Revere with a parking lot, horse stalls, higher car insurance rates, more traffic, and more headaches than it is worth.’’

Arrigo pointed out that the project cannot go forward without Revere’s consent, and he suggested the city use that leverage in talks with the developer to ensure it gets a fair share of property, meals, and hotel taxes, even if the structures are not physically in Revere.

“We need to start talking about what would be fair,’’ he said, suggesting that Revere should get 50 percent of the total local taxes generated by the full development.

Menino, asked about Arrigo’s comments, stated: “The casino is in Boston.’’ But the mayor also suggested that the resort will have far-reaching economic effects and is likely to generate additional development in Revere and additional business for companies there. “We have to look at the regional economic impact.’’

Suffolk Downs has many more steps to take before it can apply for a license, including presenting a traffic improvement plan, which should be released soon, said Chip Tuttle, the track’s chief operating officer.

The state casino law also requires Suffolk Downs to reach agreements with Boston and Revere over mitigation payments to offset the effects of the casino. No casino developer is eligible for a license until the voters of the host community - in the Suffolk Downs case, Revere and East Boston - endorse the project in local referendum.

The state casino law allows large cities to limit the vote to the ward in which the casino would be located.

Long the leading contender for the Greater Boston casino license, Suffolk Downs has been in the fortunate position of watching potential top competitors fall out of the sweepstakes.

Las Vegas casino developer Steve Wynn tried persuading the Foxborough to approve a resort development near Gillette Stadium, but was rebuffed by local voters, who elected casino opponents to the Board of Selectmen in May. Wynn dropped the plans and has declined to say if he will find another community.

Another possible competitor - Las Vegas Sands, the casino company run by Boston native Sheldon Adelson - maintained an active lobbying presence in Massachusetts while the casino bill was being developed last year, but then decided it would not bid, because Adelson believes the state’s plans to license up to three resorts and a slot parlor will dilute the market.

Developer David Nunes, who has proposed a casino in Milford but has yet to reveal a financing partner, said Tuesday that he “absolutely, unequivocally’’ will bid for the Greater Boston casino license.

The Western Massachusetts region has attracted several companies that say they intend to compete, such as MGM, Mohegan Sun, and Ameristar.

The casino law delays any commercial casino development in Southeastern Massachusetts to allow a Native American tribe, presumed to be the Mashpee Wampanoag, a chance to make progress toward a tribal casino under a separate federal approval process. The deference to the tribe is being challenged in federal court.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.

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