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TOM KEANE

Challenging the boundaries, and definition, of ‘host community’

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

Casinos seemed an attractive amusement when they were more theoretical than fact. They also once appeared the state’s economic salvation back when the Great Recession was in full swing. But as reality gets closer and the recession fades away, casinos are starting to look far uglier and much less necessary. Gambling fans thought the battle had been won with the gaming law’s passage in 2011. Hardly. The road to those riches is paved with speed bumps and perhaps even a solid brick wall. Those obstacles include Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, and some smart legal talent surrounding both.

In Boston’s case, the obstacles sound like legal pin-dancing. The city is debating the definition of a “host” instead of a “surrounding” community. Under state law, host communities have nearly complete say-so over casinos in their midst. Surrounding communities, conversely, have little leverage. A casino supposedly has to come to agreement with its neighbors, but if it can’t, the gaming commission can just dictate a deal. From a negotiating standpoint, it’s plainly better to be a host.

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So what, exactly, is a host community? One would think the answer obvious — it means a casino is within a city or town’s borders. But how about when it lies on the edge? When casino proponents were proposing to build on Suffolk Downs, which straddles East Boston and Revere, both communities were regarded as hosts and, last November, both got to vote. Eastie said no while Revere said yes. So, after some rejiggering, the casino was moved a bit until it was no longer was in Eastie.

The problem, as this example illustrates, is that such line drawing is a dumb way to think about casino impacts. The slight relocation to Revere won’t change the impact on Boston. You will, as Sarah Palin might say, still be able to see the casino from Boston. Patrons will travel through Boston streets to get to the casino. Some of their hotels likely will be in Boston. And the stuff that comes with casinos — the sex trade, crime, family and social dislocation, and, most unnerving of all, frequent sightings of large men in open-collar black shirts with too many gold chains — will still be in and around Boston. Meanwhile, there’s a worry that while casinos bring jobs, they also crowd out other, more lucrative economic development.

Thus Walsh contends that, boundaries notwithstanding, Boston really is a host community. Even further, his lawyers say, the gaming commission doesn’t have the authority to decide who’s a host or not, meaning that the matter eventually gets decided in court. At a minimum, simply making the argument has given Boston more clout, forcing the Gaming Commission Thursday to put off its decisionmaking. And if Walsh ultimately wins the point, new votes would need to be held. Both the Revere casino as well as one proposed for nearby Everett could be doomed if adjacent Eastie or Charlestown were to say no.

The logic of Walsh’s position goes further. Why should just two neighborhoods have a say? How about the entire city or even the region? After all, what happens in one place has a ripple effect that touches us all.

That logic brings us to a referendum being pushed by Harshbarger and a group he’s advising, Repeal the Casino Deal. They hope to overturn the casino law altogether. It’s a good card for Walsh to have in his back pocket.

Signatures have already been collected, but current attorney general (and gubernatorial hopeful) Martha Coakley has refused to certify the petition. She says repeal in effect amounts to an impermissible taking of property — in this case, the expectation of a license. The anti-casino group appealed her decision to the Supreme Judicial Court; the case should be heard in early May. Repeal the Casino Deal points to 2008’s successful referendum abolishing greyhound racing, which wiped out some long-established businesses. If that referendum question was OK, they figure, so too is theirs.

If the SJC agrees, get ready for a fierce campaign. Casino interests have money to burn and they’ll easily outspend those pushing the referendum. But a recent WBUR poll shows the mood in Massachusetts is shifting. Money can’t necessarily buy love and voters are growing wary of the gambling dens in their midst. In Boston and statewide, money may eventually be shown the door.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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