For years, only a wrought iron fence stood between Gail Miller and Pat Benti, a pair of friendly neighbors on Orient Avenue, but now their yards are a testament to the deep political chasm that has opened between them.
Miller has plastered her property with signs urging a “no” vote on a Suffolk Downs casino, fearing it would attract more woes than riches.
Right next door, Benti has put up procasino placards, touting the project as a way to save the historic racetrack and bring jobs to East Boston.
“It definitely has caused some stress among friends and neighbors,” said Miller, who dropped Benti as a Facebook friend “just until this is over.”
With Tuesday’s critical East Boston referendum looming, polling suggests the neighborhood is as divided on the casino as the next-door neighbors.
That the $1 billion proposal would be facing such a closely split electorate would have seemed unthinkable a year ago, when Suffolk Downs and its prominent casino partner, Caesars Entertainment, were widely considered a lock to win the sole Greater Boston resort casino license.
But protracted negotiations with Boston officials pushed the referendum into November and gave opponents more time to organize. Then, three weeks before the vote, Suffolk Downs suddenly dropped Caesars from the project due to worries that the gambling giant would fail its state background check. The track heads into Election Day without a casino operator, introducing an element of uncertainty into the election.
“It’s going to come down to Suffolk Downs’ relationship with East Boston and Revere and whether there is trust that they will provide the benefits they have promised . . . without Caesars,” said Clyde Barrow, a casino expert at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “On a tactical level, Suffolk Downs has to load up the buses and get their supporters to the polls.”
Chip Tuttle, the racetrack’s chief operating officer, brushed off the tight polls, saying that their message has resonated with local residents. “We’ve had individual conversations with almost 10,000 East Boston registered voters, and we feel really good about the support for this proposal to bring jobs and community investment to this neighborhood,” Tuttle said.
If East Boston does not approve the casino plan Tuesday, the proposal dies, and Suffolk Downs loses the chance to compete for a resort casino license with a Wynn Resorts project in Everett and a Foxwoods proposal in Milford. Everett voters overwhelmingly endorsed the Wynn plan in June; Milford votes Nov. 19.
Casino supporters, such as Benti, 63, say the proposal is the last chance to preserve racing at the last thoroughbred track in New England, which probably will close if the vote fails. “It’s a historic track; it’s like Fenway Park,” he said, recalling the glory days when races drew 15,000 spectators or more. “This is an opportunity to bring back the jobs.”
Suffolk Downs has promised to create 4,000 permanent jobs if it wins the license, and has signed agreements that would guarantee payments of at least $32 million annually to Boston and at least $9 million a year to Revere. The developers plan to add two hotels, restaurants, shops, and other amenities to the roughly 163-acre site — as well as thousands of slot machines, table games and a poker room. Opponents maintain that the costs of introducing a casino into the urban neighborhood are simply too high.
“We know it basically sucks the lifeblood out of a community,” said Miller. “While they’re promising jobs they’re also going to drain jobs from the existing businesses. When your disposable income dollars go down there, that’s one less dollar spent in our community.”
Over the past two years, Suffolk Downs has spent $1.9 million to persuade voters in East Boston and Revere to accept a casino in their neighborhood, including $946,000 this year through late October. The venture, backed by multimillionaires, has enjoyed a roughly 86-1 spending advantage over the primary opposition group, No Eastie Casino, according to campaign finance reports on file. The No Eastie group spent nothing in 2012 and $22,000 this year opposing the project, through Oct. 18. The group had about $12,000 available for the last several weeks of the campaign, according to reports.
“No political entity has spent as much campaign money in Boston as Suffolk has,” said Ernani DeAraujo, a casino opponent who once served as East Boston liaison to Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “I think that it would be shocking if they don’t win.”
Yet opponents at the No Eastie group are clearly optimistic with their low-budget ground campaign. They have quoted Gandhi on their Twitter account: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
“We’re organic here in the neighborhood,” said Celeste Myers, a leader of the anticasino effort. “That’s why we’ve gotten traction.”
A WBUR poll of East Boston voters in late October suggested 46 percent opposed a casino at the track, while 42 percent supported the project. A Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll released Friday pegged support for the track at 47 percent in East Boston, with 42 percent opposed. Voters in Revere also go to the polls Tuesday to decide a separate ballot question on Suffolk Downs.
Investigators for the state gambling commission dealt the project a blow in October, recommending that Caesars be disqualified from bidding due in part to the company’s business relationship with a New York boutique hotel company, Gansevoort Hotel Group. Investigators say an owner of Gansevoort is allegedly tied to Russian gangsters. Caesars severed a hotel licensing deal with Gansevoort, but could not salvage its position in the East Boston project. Suffolk Downs ultimately asked the company to withdraw.
The commission cleared the remaining Suffolk Downs partners as suitable bidders, and track officials have been in talks with other casino companies. Hard Rock International, which lost a referendum in West Springfield, is a leading contender to replace Caesars in the East Boston project, though no deal is expected before the vote.
Across East Boston, campaign fatigue is setting in, said Max Gruner, executive director of East Boston Main Streets, an organization that has taken no position on the casino proposal.
“I definitely have heard people jokingly saying that, ‘If I get another phone call from the various camps, I’m going to disconnect my phone,’ ” said Gruner.
In at least one case, the conflict has turned violent. In Revere last month, Charles Lightbody, 53, was accused of punching a Suffolk Downs supporter at a campaign event. Lightbody, a Suffolk Downs opponent, has reported to state campaign officials that he has spent $4,200 against the proposal. He is also listed as a $1,000 donor to No Eastie Casino.