From the get-go, Tewksbury residents made clear the decision was theirs to make.
Despite intense interest and opposition from surrounding communities, most notably Andover, Tewksbury residents voted loud and clear — on a voice vote — to restrict debate on the floor only to town residents.
“Tonight belongs to the residents of Tewksbury,” Town Moderator Keith Rauseo announced, as cheers bounced off the gymnasium walls.
A proposal to allow the $200 million Merrimack Valley Casino to be built drew 2,617 voters to Tewksbury Memorial High School last Tuesday, the largest gathering for a Special Town Meeting in decades.
Fearing an increase in crime and traffic and a drop in the value of their homes, 1,568 of those in attendance voted against a zoning change that effectively killed Penn National’s bid to build a 24-hour slots parlor that would have generated an estimated $4.3 million in annual tax revenues and payments, along with the promise of 500 permanent jobs. There were 995 votes in favor.
Penn National’s proposal thrust Tewksbury into the sweepstakes for the state’s one slots parlor license, due to be awarded this year by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. With Tuesday’s vote, it became the first Bay State community to vote against a casino proposal.
The Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee, and Planning Board all supported the zoning change that would have allowed the slots parlor to be built on 30 acres of wooded land off Route 133 at the Ames Pond Corporate Center, near the Andover town line. Their backing prompted one speaker to state that town officials were out of touch with residents’ concerns. Others felt the vote came too soon after Penn National announced on July 11 that it plans to seek a slots license.
“I do care if they come to our town, and they go to a neighborhood where people have worked hard to buy their homes,” said resident Fred Simon. “And they bought those homes since it was near an office park. . . . I’ve had many people say that if the [town] leadership was going to plan a casino in the middle of where they live, they never would have bought.”
Scott Wilson, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, rejected the notion that town leaders failed to read the pulse of the community.
“We put forward this proposal to let the people decide,” said Wilson, who spoke in favor of the zoning change.
He attributed defeat to “too much bad information” swirling through town since Penn unveiled its proposal. “We didn’t have enough time to combat it,” he said after the zoning change was defeated. “I wish I could have stood up tonight and answered questions. But, you know, it’s how people feel. They’re scared. I get it . . . Change is not easy and this was a biggie.”
“We had a great grass-roots campaign,” said Ann Buskey, a former School Committee member who was part of the No Slots group.
“I cannot think of another proposal . . . that would create as many jobs, and generate as much revenue,” said Town Manager Richard Montuori, who spoke in favor of the zoning change at Tuesday’s meeting.
Some residents agreed. “The additional money that this will bring in, for firefighters and police officers and for other things that are desperately needed for this town, is well worth the risk,” said Linda Desharnais, a homeowner on South Street. “I think people are a little silly, if they don’t realize that people already gamble, and spend their money at the liquor store, or at the Keno parlor, and think this [slots parlor] is the biggest evil in the world.”
Resident Charles Labella said the slots parlor could help boost the town’s fortunes. “The casino will provide new jobs, and substantial additional revenue,” he said. “Allowing a company of Penn National’s stature to build a small, state of the art, modern casino with a few restaurants will not change the character of our town in a negative way, but will enhance it.”
But opponents countered that a slots parlor did not belong in their town of nearly 30,000 people.
“Let’s focus on our community, on our neighbors and our way of life,” said Susan Kolls, a 13-year homeowner who said she was attending her first town meeting.
“Officials in Toledo, Ohio; Jefferson County, West Virginia; and in Somewhere, Pennsylvania, who love their slot parlors, they’re welcome to them,” said resident Warren Carey, citing states where Penn National operates casinos. “I am only interested and impressed by the voters in Tewksbury, by the hundreds, who have told me in the last several weeks that they don’t want slots parlors in the town of Tewksbury.”
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission had been looking into options regarding a special election scheduled for Sept. 21 where Tewksbury residents would vote on whether to allow a slots parlor in town.
But the Tewksbury Board of Selectmen announced Friday on the town website that it had voted to cancel the special election. Since the zoning measure failed, Penn National couldn’t go forward in Tewksbury, anyway.
A spokesman for Penn National said Wednesday the company is evaluating its next steps.
“Penn National is going to step back and take some time to determine what, if any, options they want to consider in Massachusetts,” spokesman Will Keyser wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “They will be closing the office in Tewksbury, and support the cancellation of the Sept. 21 election.”Kathy McCabe can be reached at katherine.mccabe. @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.