Stakes high in Revere’s second casino referendum
Vote on plan follows a string of trouble for gambling industry
All Mayor Daniel Rizzo of Revere wants in Tuesday’s casino referendum is a win. By how much? He doesn’t care, as long as more Revere residents vote in favor of a planned Mohegan Sun casino at Suffolk Downs than against.
“This is a pass/fail test,” said Rizzo, who has emerged as the public face of the city’s procasino effort. “If we thought there were style points for a larger margin of victory we’d have concentrated on that.”
If Mohegan Sun wins Revere voters’ backing on Tuesday, it will face a second challenge: competing with a rival proposal from Wynn Resorts for the sole casino license being awarded in Eastern Massachusetts.
The Wynn plan won 86 percent of the vote in Everett last June — and state gambling regulators have been clear that the strength of local support will be one factor in play in the next round of the competition before the state gambling commission.
Nearly four months after gambling opponents in East Boston overcame long odds to defeat an earlier Suffolk Downs casino plan, there is little public data available on the state of the race ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
Casino opponents — a group of local activists and clergy who have been severely outspent during the two-months campaign — believe they can deliver another upset.
“Every day we’re feeling more and more confident we can beat this,” said Joe Catricala, a founder of the opposition group Don’t Gamble on Revere.
The referendum kicks off what should be a momentous week for the state’s fledgling casino industry. The state gambling commission expects to grant its first license, for a slot parlor, by Friday, choosing among projects in Plainville, Raynham, and Leominster.
Casino backers are hoping the award of the first license, and perhaps a positive vote in Revere, will change momentum for the industry, which has suffered through a long stretch of bad news in Massachusetts, including failed referendums in West Springfield, East Boston, Palmer, and Milford; new lawsuits; and an ongoing campaign to put a repeal of the state casino law on the November ballot.
Revere would appear to be the ideal roll to break the industry’s losing streak, said Clyde Barrow, a University of Massachusetts Dartmouth casino expert.
“I think Revere should be as sure a win as you’re going to get in Massachusetts,” Barrow said. “The theme we’ve seen over and over in these referenda is distressed communities with low incomes and high rates of unemployment approve these referenda, and the bedroom communities and suburbs that are comparatively affluent with low rates of unemployment vote against it.”
It will be important for Mohegan Sun to receive at least as much support in Revere as the earlier Suffolk Downs casino plan pulled in last November, said Carl Jenkins, managing director at the financial firm Duff & Phelps, who has studied the state’s gambling market. About 60 percent of Revere voters backed the earlier plan, for a Suffolk Downs casino on racetrack land in East Boston. “If support goes below that number, that would be sending a message.”
Thurston Ege, 87, a lifelong Revere resident, is leaning against a casino, saying he is “not overly thrilled” about the project. He fears it will make already “terrific” traffic jams worse, and he looks skeptically on the developer’s promises.
“They give you all these promises — this and that — and when you sift it all out it’s not what you had interpreted it to be,” he said.
But Carol Tye, 78, a former Revere teacher and school superintendent who sits on the School Committee, said the city cannot afford to turn away the tens of millions of dollars in revenue a casino would provide.
“We desperately need a new high school,” she said. “We don’t have enough money.”
Rizzo has relentlessly pushed the economic and employment benefits of a proposed $1.3 billion resort off Winthrop Avenue at Suffolk Downs, taking the message to every neighborhood of the city and activating his own supporters to turn out votes, he said. He has sharply pushed back against local clergy members who oppose the project, and insists that if there is any city in Massachusetts that can handle a gambling business, it is Revere, where longtime locals grew up around gambling at two racetracks, Suffolk Downs and Wonderland.
“It’s part of the fabric and culture of our city,” said Rizzo.
Casino supporters have run “an old-fashioned door-to-door campaign,” said Kerri Rampelberg, a Revere florist who chairs the Friends of Mohegan Sun campaign, into which the casino company has pumped $400,000 since early January, according to campaign finance documents.
The Mohegan Sun project represents the second attempt to build a casino at New England’s last thoroughbred racetrack, which straddles the East Boston-Revere city line. Suffolk Downs officials worked for years to build support for a gambling resort on the East Boston side of the track property, which they promised would be an “urban oasis.” Though Revere voters backed the plan in a referendum last November, East Boston voters said no.
Within hours of that rejection, Rizzo was urging Suffolk Downs officials to move their plans a few hundred yards entirely onto the Revere side of the property, to get around East Boston’s vote. The track struck a deal to lease about 42 acres in Revere to Mohegan Sun for a gambling resort.
The state gambling commission waived one of its rules — that all casino votes take place by the end of 2013 — to allow Tuesday’s referendum on the new project, enraging East Boston casino opponents who thought they had won their David and Goliath battle against wealthy casino developers, only to see Goliath get another chance.
With a truncated, two-month campaign, Revere casino opponents quickly organized, drawing on the experience and advice of No Eastie Casino, the citizens group that led the defeat of the original Suffolk Downs plans in East Boston. Opponents have raised about $11,400 to fight the Revere project, according to campaign documents.
The opposition has expressed concerns about traffic, crime, falling property values, and other issues, under their catch-all anticasino slogan: “The problems are coming.”
The opponents have gotten a boost from local clergy, who have organized against a Revere gambling resort, following the model of religious leaders in East Boston who preached against the original Suffolk Downs plan.
“Predatory gambling is simply not in the best interest of our community,” said the Rev. George Szal, of Immaculate Conception Parish, in a statement. “And Tuesday’s vote is far from a done deal.”
If the casino proposal is approved by voters, the next phase of the process will begin, with the commission weighing the Revere and Everett casino proposals against each other on a number of factors, including jobs, revenue, and other economic advantages. The commission will also consider which plan would best address possible negative effects, such as traffic and problem gambling.
The commission expects to issue a license by May 30.