Brokering peace with a cannoli casino summit
If Jimmy Carter had Camp David and Ronald Reagan had Reykjavik, Sal LaMattina and Dan Rizzo will always have Caffe Vittoria.
Call it the Cannoli Summit.
The issue of whether a gambling palace should be built on Suffolk Downs has pitted neighbor against neighbor in Eastie, and now community against community as Mohegan Sun attempts to build a $1 billion casino on the Revere side of the race track.
Tensions have been high, and they're likely to escalate with a decision by the state gambling commission Tuesday to have Revere vote again on whether it wants a casino. It's a move that infuriates both sides: Eastie feels that its no-casino vote is being invalidated, while Revere doesn't get why it needs to jump through hoops for something nobody else seems to want.
Before you know it, someone is going to propose building a wall along Route 1A to keep the glaring neon lights out of Orient Heights.
Can there ever be peace between Eastie and Revere?
To answer that question, I brought together LaMattina, the three-term city councilor from East Boston, and Rizzo, the first-term mayor of Revere, for cannoli, cappuccino, and conversation at the popular North End gathering spot — as close as you can get to a neutral zone for two Italian-American politicians. Besides, who can say no to cannoli?
Rizzo arrived by Revere police car, which meant he couldn't cross the Tobin Bridge without being heckled by an Eastie toll booth collector who opposes casinos. LaMattina strolled over from his office at City Hall.
LaMattina, 54, a lifelong Eastie resident whose backyard overlooks Suffolk Downs, let it be known that while he initially supported a casino at the track, he no longer does because his community voted against it.
"I have to support the will of the people," he explained, a few sips into his cappuccino. Turning to Rizzo and his pro-casino stance, he said: "I don't blame you. If I were the mayor of Revere, I would do the same thing."
But LaMattina does blame someone, many people. "I'm frustrated with the whole process from the governor down," he said. "There was a better way. At the end, it was really ugly."
What should have happened? According to the councilor, there should have been a statewide referendum on casinos, not a law imposed by Beacon Hill; there should have been just one casino run by the lottery on state land. That way we could have avoided the not-in-my-backyard fights.
Rizzo, 54, gives the councilor this much: The process could have been better, but starting from scratch wouldn't have gotten rid of the NIMBYs. "If they were to scrap these plans and come back and say they wanted to build a mall in East Boston, you would have had people calling Sal and saying, 'I don't want a mall,' " said Rizzo.
If Eastie can't stop the casino next door — and it will try — is there anything that would make one more palatable? There is one thing, LaMattina acknowledged: "To honor the agreement we had earlier."
That would be an upfront payment of $33 million to Boston, and — if the casino met a pie-in-the-sky $1 billion revenue target — another $50 million annually, of which $20 million would go to Eastie. As a host community, Boston was due that amount, but now that title belongs to Revere, which is negotiating its deal with Mohegan Sun and Suffolk Downs. Would Revere share with Eastie?
"I do not want to put this facility out of business before they get into business," said Rizzo.
Revere, as a surrounding host community, was slated to receive $8 million upfront and about $15 million in annual payments. That kind of money for this working-class city of 53,000 would have made dreams come true.
LaMattina said he had dreams, too. Casino money for this neighborhood of 45,000 would have paid for a new senior center, spruced up parks, and much more.
What if the two split the difference? What if Eastie got $8 million upfront, plus $20 million annually under its original agreement?
Rizzo, perhaps under the influence of a cannoli sugar high, softened. If his city can get a fair shake, he said, "I don't see anything here that is a deal breaker."
Casino or no casino, give peace a chance in Eastie.