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Suffolk Downs casino friends, foes take to streets

Chip Tuttle (left), chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs, and Jason Ruggiero, the East Boston field director for Friends of Suffolk Downs, rang a doorbell on Coleridge Street.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Chip Tuttle (left), chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs, and Jason Ruggiero, the East Boston field director for Friends of Suffolk Downs, rang a doorbell on Coleridge Street.

The chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs clambered atop a desk in a former insurance office to rally his troops Sunday morning.

“We’re in the home stretch, as they say in horse racing,” Chip Tuttle, 50, told about four dozen volunteers and staff packed into an Orient Heights storefront. “We can see the wire.”

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More than 250 canvassers spent Sunday knocking on doors across East Boston and Revere, trying to shore up votes before the Tuesday election that will decide the fate of a $1 billion casino proposed for Suffolk Downs’ site at the border of the communities.

At the other end of East Boston, casino opponents held a rally that drew about 80, many with small children in tow.

Celeste Ribeiro Myers, a leader of the No Eastie Casino group, led an impassioned military-style chant: “We don’t want slots or roulette. Casino is a losing bet.”

With the election countdown measured in hours, the track faces an existential crisis.

If residents vote down mitigation agreements negotiated with Boston and Revere officials, it could end not just expansion plans but also the thoroughbred racing that has been its mainstay for 78 years, but has been unprofitable since 2005, Tuttle said.

“We feel really good about support in East Boston and Revere, but the more doors we knock on . . . the better we feel,” he said.

In the Wood Island section of East Boston, procasino canvasser Sorcha Rochford, 22, said she gets mostly warm responses.

“The people who are supportive are supportive because of the jobs and the increase of money that’s going to be spent in East Boston,” said Rochford, a political science graduate student at Suffolk University. “And the No Eastie Casino people don’t really seem to want to talk to me.”

Rochford said residents had questions the day after Caesars Entertainment abruptly withdrew Oct. 18 from the casino plan due to ethics concerns raised by state investigators.

“When we explained that Suffolk Downs was still in, and the host community agreement hadn’t changed, they felt better,” she said.

Tuttle threw himself into the outreach effort Sunday, introducing his trio of canvassers to a group on a sidewalk by saying, “We’re your friendly neighborhood casino developer. What do you think?”

On Coleridge Street, he spoke with resident Bob Ballam, 49, who expressed concern that a casino would increase traffic, particularly at the Neptune Road exit from Route 1A North, where already Logan Airport traffic can add a half-hour to his commute home.

“We’ve got a pretty good plan we’ve been working on since 2008,” Tuttle told him, launching into a detailed explanation of how Suffolk Downs would work with city officials to improve traffic at major nearby intersections.

After their talk, Ballam thanked Tuttle for the visit but remained unconvinced. Later, Ballam said by phone that he likes the idea of a Greater Boston casino but doesn’t believe Suffolk Downs is the right location.

“I do appreciate that he came to talk in person; I think he’s a likable fellow,” Ballam said. “I just think when you look at the issue, I’m a no-casino person.”

In East Boston’s Central Square, dozens of other casino opponents held signs, chanted, and cheered Sunday afternoon.

Brian Gannon, 40, a City Council candidate running on an anticasino platform, pulled out guitar and harmonica to perform a folk song he wrote about his grandfather’s emigration to East Boston and the pitfalls of gambling.

Raymond Flynn, former Boston mayor, said a casino was not the solution to local problems. “This is unfortunate that because people are poor and working hard and struggling they can try to cram a . . . gambling casino down their throat,” said Flynn, 74. “They should be talking about jobs and education.”

Flynn said he had walked neighborhood streets talking to residents since dropping his daughter and grandson at the airport four hours earlier. They were headed to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., for tests on the boy, 7, who was born with special needs, Flynn said.

Rather than a casino, developers should bring a medical research facility to East Boston, capitalizing on the city’s existing world-class hospitals, he said.

Rob Pyles, 36, and his wife moved to East Boston nine years ago and were welcomed by neighbors, he said. Now they have roots in the community and plan to raise their two young daughters there.

“When this whole idea came out, I was kind of on the fence . . . because I could see in theory there would be jobs developed and be income,” Pyles said, but then he researched casino impacts.

“It became clear that putting one of the largest casino developments on the continent in a residential neighborhood was just a big gamble,” he said.

Speakers at the rally said they were cautiously optimistic they would prevail on Tuesday. Maureen White, 33, told the crowd Suffolk Downs’ deep pockets would not decide the vote.

“They may have millions of dollars, but we have heart and soul, and that’s what’s going to win this election,” she said.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.
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