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editorial

At Suffolk Downs, a makeover — but too many open questions

Suffolk Downs.

David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file 2012

Suffolk Downs.

The racetrack at Suffolk Downs feels like a monument to a bygone era. At the entrance to the clubhouse, there’s a marker celebrating Seabiscuit, the thoroughbred whose unlikely emergence as a champion electrified Depression-era America. Built in 1935, the clubhouse and grandstand were joined together and extensively renovated in the 1960s, leaving a bland but functional space. On a crisp autumn day with no races scheduled, simulcasts from other tracks still attract scores of wagerers to the vast building.

Yet the near-emptiness of the parking area outside accentuates how underused Suffolk Downs’s 160-acre site really is. For years, the track’s owners have been holding out for a casino license that would reinvigorate their horse-racing operations while bringing thousands of new jobs to the area. Suffolk Downs straddles the border between Boston and Revere, and in accordance with state law the track has reached agreements spelling out the terms of the prospective casino’s relationship with both cities. Both agreements come up for public votes on Tuesday; the Boston deal goes before voters in the East Boston neighborhood only.

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For Revere and East Boston voters who are unalterably opposed to casino gambling, the analysis is easy; they should vote no. At the other extreme are diehard supporters of Suffolk Downs, for whom the nuances of any casino plan and the details of any agreement are secondary to redeveloping the racetrack.

In the middle are a large group of persuadable voters — who may not love gambling but have no deep objections to it; who want the area to see some kind of economic lift but are open to alternatives; who appreciate new revenues but want them to be spent wisely and transparently. For these voters, some aspects of the Suffolk Downs proposal may be quite appealing — but there are too many other reasons for skepticism, from the sudden departure of the casino operator, to uncertainty about the financing, to questions about who will oversee East Boston’s share of the revenues.

Suffolk Downs has had plenty of time to think through how its down-at-heel racetrack might be transformed into a destination resort, and its architect’s plans reflect some careful deliberation. Rather than a monolithic, Las Vegas-like casino that no shaft of daylight ever penetrates, the plans call for two major structures: The existing grandstand and clubhouse would be transformed into a gambling area; a new building nearby would house a second casino area, along with hotel space. The racetrack itself would be preserved. Much of the current site would be redeveloped, Suffolk Downs promises, as open space.

Those who want a rapid, big-dollar redevelopment of the East Boston/Revere site — and are confident in the track’s ability to execute it — will find much to like in Suffolk Downs’s design. Meanwhile, movie buffs who loved “Seabiscuit” may respond nostalgically to Suffolk’s current plans to evoke horse racing’s heyday.

But can and will Suffolk Downs deliver what it’s promising?

The 11th-hour breakup between Suffolk Downs and its intended casino operator, Caesars Entertainment, raises major doubts about the project. Out of necessity, Suffolk Downs officials claim that trading one operator for another will have minimal impact on the casino’s operation, but that can’t be entirely true; Caesars’ far-reaching casino empire sustains a rewards program that, theoretically, would have helped Suffolk Downs draw from an international pool of customers. A different operator might be more reliant on convenience gamblers from surrounding communities. But Suffolk Downs has yet to announce a new operator and may not do so until after the election.

Ostensibly, host-community agreements compensate cities for the increased traffic and noise that a casino would bring, and for any costs associated with preventing a spike in property crime, prostitution, drunken driving, or compulsive gambling. In practice, these agreements allow casino-friendly city officials to extract enough revenue and other high-profile concessions from casino developers to win over voters. The Boston and Revere agreements are no exception.

The latter promises about $15 million a year to Revere, plus hiring preferences for residents, a variety of infrastructure improvements, and commitments to spend money in local businesses. Boston’s agreement contains many similar provisions, such as a detailed list of community projects in East Boston and a commitment to make $32 million a year or more in annual payments to the city. Of that, $20 million a year would be reserved for an East Boston-only community trust. But the agreement offers few safeguards for how that money will be administered.

In assessing the Revere and Boston deals, voters must also consider the possibility that financial reversals would force Suffolk Downs to seek revisions to its agreements. Curiously, they already allow for a phased construction schedule — in which the conversion of the grandstand into a gambling area would come first; and the hotel space, other amenities, and infrastructure improvements would be completed later. Suffolk Downs must have wanted this provision badly, because in agreeing to it Mayor Menino had to back off a strong stance that the entire resort should be built at once.

Menino’s original position was wise, for it increased pressure on Suffolk Downs to line up funding for the entire project up front. In a phased schedule, revenues from the first phase of gambling operations help defray the cost of finishing amenities. Should revenues fall short — a possibility, amid great turmoil in the casino industry — the hotels and a much-touted traffic ramp might be delayed, leaving Revere and East Boston without the key amenities and improvements that separate a world-class resort from a makeshift racetrack gambling hall. To be sure, Suffolk Downs would face penalties in this scenario, but there’s precedent elsewhere for a financially troubled casino escaping its initial commitments.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission has raised questions about the ability of Suffolk Downs’s largest shareholder, Richard Fields, to contribute more capital to the project if needed in the future. Another investor, Vornado, has put its holdings in a blind trust because it didn’t want to submit to the Gaming Commission’s tough background checks and is expected to divest. If anything goes wrong, the other major shareholder, Joe O’Donnell, would presumably cover any shortfalls. But it adds yet another element of uncertainty to the equation.

In short: With questionable financial backing, an unknown casino operator, and plans that could well hinge on the immediate success of slot machines in the converted grandstand, Suffolk Downs is asking voters to take too much on faith.

If Suffolk Downs doesn’t, for whatever reason, get a casino license, the question would become what to do with the Suffolk site. The track could struggle along for some time, to be sure. But there are plenty of other ways to reinvent a largely open 160-acre property in jam-packed Greater Boston.

One former Boston mayoral candidate’s proposal to turn the site into a new Innovation District overlooks why many in East Boston and Revere do support the casino: the prospect of new jobs for people without college degrees. But voters should consider whether there are other possibilities. Over time, a mix of residential and commercial uses on so vast a site could yield as many or more jobs as a gambling facility, without binding the area’s fate so tightly to the uncertain fortunes of Suffolk Downs.

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