When East Boston voted against a casino at Suffolk Downs last year, the verdict created a big headache for incoming mayor Marty Walsh. Eastie residents rightly expect the mayor to fight for them, especially since the state’s 2011 casino law ostensibly gave communities a veto. But the state’s gaming commission opened up a big loophole in the rules, allowing the racetrack to continue its casino quest even after losing the referendum. That decision, and others that followed, left Walsh with few good options. Now, the mayor appears ready to settle for the best he can get, an $18 million mitigation package that will compensate the city financially for the impact of a casino that would technically be located on the small Revere section of the Suffolk Downs property. In return, Walsh will give up trying to get the commission to honor Eastie’s vote.
Some East Boston residents are indignant at the deal, but their real gripe should be with the commission. Once the panel accepted the track’s legal maneuvering, the mayor no longer had much leverage. If Walsh refuses to sign a Suffolk Downs mitigation deal, that won’t stop the casino; it would just mean that a third-party arbitrator decides which mitigation agreement the city gets instead. Somerville and Chelsea took that route and wound up with lousy deals as a result. Walsh also could have sued, but there’s no guarantee such a suit would be successful. The mayor is no anti-casino zealot, but even if he were, stopping the Suffolk Downs plan would have been a tough task.
Suffolk and its casino partner, Mohegan Sun, seem to hope that the big mitigation package will score them points with the commission. But $18 million doesn’t change the big picture: residents of East Boston voted against a Suffolk Downs casino. That needs to factor into the commission’s assessment of community support more than the deal with Walsh does. Meanwhile, Eastie residents who object to the agreement should make their concerns known to the commission.
The Suffolk Downs plan is competing with another casino proposal in Everett for the sole casino license in the Greater Boston region, and the commission is expected to make a final decision later this summer. That comes at an awkward time — just as voters begin pondering whether to repeal the casino law outright. When Governor Patrick signed the casino law, he and other backers boasted that it included strong local control. If commissioners are seen as dismissing the wishes of legitimate stakeholders in Eastie, that’s bound to deepen public cynicism just as voters consider scrapping the whole thing.