Hedging their bet at Suffolk Downs
You can’t help but feel bad for Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle and the others who have been working for years to bring a casino to the moribund racetrack — even if you dislike gaming as much as I do. Tuttle came by Wednesday to talk about the project, and he looked like he’d been hit by a massive sucker punch – two, actually.
I wanted to give him a big hug. But no one should embrace his idea for salvaging the Suffolk Downs casino proposal.
The first blow landed in October, when Massachusetts Gaming Commission investigators balked at Caesars, the Las Vegas giant that was to run the gleaming palace, because of a sketchy business partner. Then last week, voters in East Boston stunned many by rejecting the casino altogether.
But Suffolk Downs will not take that blast of good sense for an answer. Sure, East Boston voted no, they say, but Revere, the neighboring community where part of their land also sits, voted yes. So they’re going to simply pick up the proposed casino and move it over the municipal line, so that it’s entirely on the Revere side. This, they claim, means Boston will no longer be a host community, so it has no say.
Tuttle says this “respects” the wishes of East Boston voters. Actually, it mocks them, and the democratic process. Eastie casino opponents are incensed, with good cause.
“We’re incredulous,” said Celeste Myers, part of the small, scrappy team who won out on Nov. 5. “I was concerned about the casino’s impacts to the community, and our way of life. But now you’re talking about the impact to democracy.”
The only way to make sure casinos do the right thing, Myers and her fellow opponents argue, is to repeal the gaming law altogether. They are gathering signatures to meet a Nov. 20 deadline for a ballot question that would do just that.
For his part, Tuttle and his bosses are arguing that voters in East Boston were mistaken when they thought they were voting to reject a casino at Suffolk Downs outright. Rather, they were voting only on whether the Boston portion of the property could be used for a casino. He says he raised the possibility of moving the facility to the Revere side publicly before the vote (Though his statements in a video he offers as evidence are not as clear as he suggests).
But it’s still a lawyerly sleight of hand, worthy of an industry built on hollow promises. After all, Revere voted as a host community when the entirety of the casino construction was to be in Boston.
The side effects of the casino don’t begin or end at the boundary line. That line, in fact, cuts right through the racetrack, which was integral to the original proposal. Now Tuttle and his partners are arguing that, magically, it isn’t. Under the new proposal, the racetrack will be completely separate from the casino — separate parking, separate administration, separate business. But that distinction — like so much here — is just fancy footwork.
And moving the gaming halls a couple minutes’ walk down the street doesn’t lessen their negative impact on Boston, impact the majority of voters in East Boston feared. The city will still be dealing with major traffic hassles on Route 1A, for example, and with the crime and addiction casinos bring. Restaurants in East Boston will still be competing with the casino for customers.
Look, I don’t blame Tuttle for trying everything. “We feel we owe it to our employees and the horsemen whose jobs we’ve been trying to preserve as part of this proposal to exhaust all options,” he said.
I’m very fond of those workers, especially the horsemen. But some perspective: This proposal is only partly about saving their jobs. It’s mostly about investors making mind-boggling profits. And, as this project’s setbacks and others’ failed bids have made clear, it was always a very risky proposition.
Maybe, despite very long odds, this bet will go Suffolk Downs’ way. Maybe they will convince the so far by-the-book Gaming Commission this Hail Mary doesn’t really violate the letter of the law.
But it sure as heck violates its spirit.