A group of Milford residents supporting plans to build a $1 billion resort casino in town held its first public meeting Thursday, making its presence known with a rally attended by hundreds of backers ready to work, organizers said.
The rally at the Milford Portuguese Club was the first public display of organized support for the Foxwoods organization’s proposal for land on the east side of town, alongside Route 16 and Interstate 495 and near the border with Holliston.
And according to organizer Warren Heller, the more than 300 people who attended the rally left with lawn signs, information about phone banks, voter identification programs, and get-out-the-vote plans, energized for a six-week push until the town’s Nov. 19 referendum.
“They’re ready to roll up their sleeves, get to work and get out the vote,” he said.
Citizens for Milford’s Future is being led by town native Heller and a local lawyer, Michael Kaplan. Heller said he is being paid by Foxwoods. Kaplan said he is working as a volunteer.
Kaplan said he got involved because he believes the 3,500 jobs, $31 million in annual tax revenue, and potential savings for taxpayers is a one-time opportunity, and too important for him to stay on the sidelines.
“This is about Milford, about our future. I had to stand up and say something,” Kaplan said. “As I started speaking out, I found more and more people who silently agreed but were afraid of retribution if they spoke out publicly, but now we are seeing the pendulum swing.
“I used to be the only one with a pro-casino lawn sign in my neighborhood,” he said. “And now I’m not.”
Heller was hired by Foxwoods to guide the campaign through next month’s referendum, and the Special Town Meeting vote planned for early December on a proposal to rezone the land should the referendum pass.
He said he waited until the Board of Selectmen signed the host community agreement with Foxwoods before deciding to go to work supporting the casino developer’s plans.
“I wanted to see the details,” Heller said, citing the contrast with Casino-Free Milford, which began organizing opposition to the proposal before the plans were released this spring.
Opponents of the proposed casino have said that the benefits have been overblown, and would not balance out against the problems they say the casino would bring, including traffic congestion, increased crime, and water shortages.
Casino-Free Milford members say they have been obtaining information that shows Foxwoods would not be the good business partner or neighbor that the company has said it would be. The details will be provided at a forum planned for Oct. 30, according to a representative, Geri Eddins.
Heller and Kaplan said they were convinced that the casino is a good deal for the town by the details in the host agreement, including Foxwoods stating it would give Milford residents the first crack at jobs, spend $50 million annually with local vendors, and provide mitigation for traffic, water, sewer, school, and other issues.
“The opposition says, ‘You can’t trust their promises,’ ” said Kaplan. “But this host agreement is a contract, it’s not promises, it’s a binding agreement.”
He also said he got involved because he was frustrated by the “misinformation” he said was being pushed by the opposition, including the idea that selectmen relied only on data provided by Foxwoods’ consultants to make their decision.
“There were separate and distinct studies done, and reviews by town department heads,” he said.
The next six weeks will be intense in Milford as both groups lobby for support before the vote, which is part of the process set up by the Massachusetts Gaming Commissionfor awarding the lone resort casino license in Greater Boston.
The referendum will ask Milford voters whether they approve of the host community agreement; a loss at the polls would scuttle the project. If the Foxwoods plan wins the referendum, Special Town Meeting would take up the rezoning proposal, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass.
If both votes are in its favor, Foxwoods would be eligible to submit its completed application to the Gaming Commission. It is competing with plans for casinos in Everett and East Boston. A decision is expected by the Gaming Commission next spring.