Both on Beacon Hill and at Boston City Hall, political backers of Suffolk Downs have done all they could to keep the troubled racetrack in business and clear its path to a casino license. That’s why the only Bostonians who got to vote on the Suffolk Downs casino plan were residents of East Boston — where most of the 160-acre property lies, and where Suffolk Downs backers felt sure they could get public support. On Tuesday, that assumption proved wrong; while voters in neighboring Revere, home to the remainder of the property, strongly supported the host agreement that their city negotiated with Suffolk Downs, voters in East Boston handily voted theirs down.
Immediately, the racetrack floated the idea of moving its casino project to the Revere side of its site. The track has the right to makes its case — before the public, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, and potentially the courts — but the basic idea breaks trust with East Boston and appears to conflict with the terms of the Revere agreement. Moreover, to accommodate a markedly different Suffolk Downs plan now would be to bend the process once again to Suffolk Downs’s benefit.
Horse racing has struggled as a sport for decades, and the ghosts of past glories are the dominant force on the Suffolk Downs site today. The plan that the racetrack put before voters implicitly acknowledged that. It would have revived the faded East Boston grandstand and filled in largely empty parking lots with gambling areas, hotel rooms, and restaurants, while turning much of the rest of the property into manicured open space. The prospect of thousands of new jobs in the near future proved persuasive to many Eastie voters.
But Suffolk Downs also gave voters ample reason for concern; its desire to build the project in phases raised the possibility that some of the promised job-creating amenities might never materialize, and its decision, days before the election, to part company with its designated casino operator, Caesars Entertainment, threw the entire discussion into chaos. Residents were being asked to vote on a Suffolk Downs/Caesars casino plan in which Caesars was out of the picture, and it’s hardly surprising that East Boston got cold feet.
Theoretically, it’s possible to move a Suffolk Downs casino entirely to the 50-odd acres of its site that lie in Revere, though the implications of a new location for traffic aren’t yet clear. Moreover, the Revere agreement asserts that “no new significant construction” is planned in the city. The agreement can be renegotiated, and Revere officials have indicated a willingness to accommodate Suffolk Downs. But what stock should the Gaming Commission put in Revere’s approval of the casino agreement if a key provision — the actual physical location of casino facilities — is changed almost immediately after its passage?
Should a Suffolk Downs casino be built in Revere, the consequences for East Boston could prove punishing. Propped up with some casino money, the old racetrack might struggle along indefinitely. But right away, it would become an afterthought, an appendage to Suffolk Downs’s dominant business. Whether the old grandstand and clubhouse would still get the glitzy makeover envisioned in the original plan seems questionable. It’s an underwhelming outcome for a site that could, with a different set of uses, catalyze a rebirth of surrounding communities.
Notably, even some of Suffolk Downs’s biggest supporters are raising doubts about the feasibility of the Revere proposal. For its part, the Gaming Commission has shown a level of flexibility in dealing with last-minute changes to gambling proposals for communities that strongly support them. It allowed a new owner to take up a Plainville racetrack’s bid for a slots parlor license after an earlier one was deemed unsuitable, and the panel seems willing to entertain a Suffolk Downs proposal involving an operator other than Caesars. But bringing in a new partner in a new location, in defiance of the Revere agreement and against the spirit of the East Boston vote, stretches flexibility to the point of absurdity. Suffolk Downs has been offered every courtesy up to this point. But now it’s just asking for too much.