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Boxborough

Vote may decide fate of slots bid

Board could sink it, or seek more details

Boxborough’s selectmen are expected to consider Monday night whether to put a quick end to plans by the Cordish Cos. to bring a slot machine parlor and boutique hotel to town, or to allow the Maryland casino developer to draft a more detailed proposal before making a decision.

The company quietly “put its toes in the local water” at a Board of Selectmen’s meeting nearly three weeks ago, when it presented preliminary plans to turn the Holiday Inn on Interstate 495 into a boutique hotel, slots parlor with as many as 1,250 machines, and a restaurant and entertainment complex, according to chairman Leslie Fox.

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“We asked people in town to let us know what they think, whether this should move forward,” Fox said.

Since then, the board’s e-mail box has been full, with Fox estimating that 90 to 95 percent of those writing are opposed to having slot machines in this quintessential New England small town.

“It’s ranged pretty much from ‘Are you out of your minds?’ to ‘Thank you for asking,’ ” he said.

And, while residents and officials in Boxborough and surrounding towns have voiced grave doubts about the proposal, one Boxborough selectman, Frank Powers, though still undecided, wonders whether it might be worth learning more about what the developer is offering.

“This is an emotional issue for a lot of people,” he said. “But the question at this point is not, ‘Should we build this?’ — the question is, ‘Should we investigate this and listen to what they have to say?’ ”

‘This is an emotional issue for a lot of people. But the question at this point is not, “Should we build this?’’ — the question is, “Should we investigate this?” ’

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Powers said he has done his own research and found that property values don’t necessarily drop around these kinds of developments, and crime doesn’t always go up.

“I’m not arguing the case for why we should’’ proceed with the project, he said, “I’m not arguing that at all, but personally, at this point I’m leaning toward getting more information.”

Joe Weinberg, managing partner at Cordish, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe that the company believes a majority of residents support exploring the redevelopment project’s benefits, which he said include a “significant increase in revenues to the town,” and the addition of 1,500 construction jobs and 750 permanent job to the local economy.

“We’ve heard repeatedly from town residents they believe, at a minimum, the town should conduct a thorough review of the project, negotiate a formal host community agreement, then allow all of the citizens to exercise their right to make the final decision in the state mandated local referendum,” he wrote.

In addition, Weinberg wrote, the company has committed to hosting several open houses at the property over the next several months, following up on one that was held at the property last week.

“We received a very positive reception from a majority of town residents who visited our open house,” he wrote.

At the same time, while some residents are e-mailing selectmen, others are e-mailing each other in an effort to get organized in case they need to mobilize in opposition should the plans be allowed to move forward.

“We just don’t want the town to get into this kind of business,” said Hugh Fortmil­ler, who is among the group of opponents. Casino developers “have no models of a small town like ours taking on this kind of venture. . .  It would change the whole character of our town.”

The 2011 law creating the Massachusetts Gaming Commission allows the agency to award up to three regional casino licenses and one slots-only license statewide. Cordish is one of four companies competing for the slots parlor license.

Before the gaming licenses are approved, however, there is a lengthy process that gives local executive boards the authority to reject proposals outright, or enter into a negotiated agreement with developers that would likely include paying for any negative impacts. If an agreement is reached, the community’s residents would then have to endorse it in a general election before the developer’s application would be considered by the state commission.

While the law gives host communities the power to say no, surrounding communities that would be affected could receive some compensation, but have no say in whether it is built.

And in Boxborough’s case, officials in the bordering towns of Acton, Harvard, and Stow said they had no idea this plan was even being proposed.

“I’m feeling a little blind­sided,” said Harvard’s Board of Selectmen chairwoman, Lucy B. Wallace, who like many of the other officials contacted first heard of the proposal by reading about it in the Globe.

“The news has just started bubbling up around town, but I can’t imagine it is something the town would embrace,” she said, adding that she had already received one call in opposition to allowing slot machines so close to Harvard.

She said among her concerns would be “drunk drivers leaving there and driving on our winding little roads.”

In Acton, Board of Selectmen chairwoman Janet K. Adachi was also surprised by the news, and while she hadn’t had time to confer with her board, she said she was personally opposed to putting this type of development at the Holiday Inn site.

Aside from an array of other issues that would have to be studied, Adachi said, traffic along already busy Massachusetts Avenue (Route 111) would pose an obvious stumbling block to a proposal of this size.

“I’m not going to opine about what Boxborough should do, but I don’t think we would want to have this kind of a business or operation in our town,” she said.

Even state Senator Jamie ­Eldridge, an Democrat from Acton who also represents Boxborough, said he had known nothing about Cordish’s plans before reading the news reports.

While stressing the decision about whether to move forward rests with the people of Boxborough, Eldridge said he would oppose the plans.

“At the state level I led the fight in the Senate against the casino bill,” he said. “This is a poor form of economic development.”

Eldridge said traffic, crime, low-paying jobs, the toll that casino developments take on small businesses in the area, and the drain that gambling takes on social programs are all things Boxborough would need to consider.

“While the developer paints a rosy picture of what benefits the project could bring, I can talk about the opposite side,” he said. “I think that is the most critical role I could play.”

The Board of Selectmen is expected to discuss the issue during a meeting starting at 6 p.m. Monday in the Blanchard Memorial School gymnasium . The meeting will adjourn no later than 6:45 p.m., officials said, in order not to conflict with the start of annual Town Meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. in the school gym.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at ishdell@aol.com.
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