The state gambling commission will convene a formal hearing in two weeks to resolve claims by Mayor Martin J. Walsh that Boston voters in Charlestown and East Boston have a right to decide if a resort casino can be built on the city’s border.
“The people of Boston deserve the democratic process,” Walsh told the five-member commission in brief remarks at a meeting Thursday.
Wash’s comments came one day after his administration unexpectedly declared to the commission that the city is a “host community,” under the 2011 casino law, to a Wynn Resorts casino plan on the city’s border with Everett and to a Mohegan Sun casino proposal at Suffolk Downs, the thoroughbred racetrack that straddles the East Boston-Revere city line.
Host communities have tremendous leverage under state law to demand millions of dollars in compensation from casino developers. They can also kill casino projects by voting them down.
Walsh insists that the Charlestown neighborhood deserves to vote on the Wynn project and that East Boston should have a say on Mohegan Sun’s plan.
“I’m not looking to kill anything,” Walsh said of the two massive casino proposals, in remarks to reporters. “I’m looking for the community, the people of those communities, to decide what they want.”
The stakes for the gambling projects could not be higher: If Walsh gets his way, it is unlikely either proposal could survive a neighborhood referendum in Boston.
In November, East Boston voters decisively rejected an earlier gambling plan on the East Boston side of Suffolk Downs. The developers moved the casino site a few hundred yards into Revere specifically to get around the results of the East Boston vote, and it is hard to imagine how they could now go back to East Boston to plead for support.
In Charlestown, recent history and the neighborhood’s demographics suggest that a casino referendum would probably fail. Gambling proposals have struggled to win support in Massachusetts communities where the median household income is above the state average, which was about $63,000 in 2011. Median household income in Charlestown was about $80,000, according to the demographic website city-data.com.
Carl Jenkins — managing director at the financial firm Duff & Phelps, who has studied the local casino market — said the union-backed mayor is taking a political risk by pursuing a course of action that, if approved by the commission, would almost certainly lead to the loss of jobs that labor has been counting on.
“This is the biggest decision the commission has had,” Jenkins said.
Wynn and Mohegan Sun insist their projects are not in Boston and that the city is not a host community. They both say Boston qualifies for the lesser legal designation of “surrounding community,” which would permit Walsh to negotiate compensation to offset some possible effects of a casino, but would not give the city binding votes.
The commission had expected Thursday to confirm Boston’s designation as a surrounding community, until Walsh declared Wednesday that the city deserved the more powerful designation.
“I’m relieved today,” Walsh said after the commission decided to hear his petition. “We now have the opportunity to present our case, to show we are a host community in both East Boston and in Charlestown.”
Walsh says both casino projects are dependent on Boston’s airport, bus and rail service, harbor tunnels, roads, and other means of transportation to do business. He says the Wynn project can only be reached through property that lies in Boston and that the proposed Revere development is “intimately related and cannot be disentangled from the Suffolk Downs site,” most of which lies on the East Boston side of the city line.
Under the state casino law, a host community is “a municipality in which a gaming establishment is located” or proposed. A “gaming establishment,” under the law, is “a gaming area and any other non-gaming structure related to the gaming area and may include, but shall not be limited to, hotels, restaurants, or other amenities.”
The city’s lawyer, Thomas C. Frongillo, also argued that the Wynn development has contracts with entertainment venues in Boston, which he said are amenities of the development.
“This is a black and white case for the commission,” Frongillo said.
Frongillo got into some sharp exchanges with commission members, after he suggested that they must not designate the city a surrounding community before Walsh’s host community claims are resolved. “The cart is being put before the horse,” he said.
“Don’t be disingenuous about this,” commission chairman Stephen Crosby responded. “This process has been going on for a long time.”