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Joan Vennochi

Menino plays favorites, Boston loses

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

CASINOS EXPLOIT the poor while offering nothing in return, except the empty promise of fool’s gold. Boston Mayor Tom Menino favors that, yet opposes a discount retailer that will bring quality products at low prices into Roxbury.

It doesn’t make sense. But don’t look for logic or consistency in Menino’s recent policy decrees. You won’t find them.

He’s against letting Wal-Mart into his fiefdom, supposedly because the giant discount retailer kills off local business. He’s for casinos even though they do the same thing.

As Donald Trump, casino owner extraordinaire, once acknowledged. “People will spend a tremendous amount of money in casinos, money they would normally spend on buying a refrigerator or a new car. Local businesses will suffer because they lose customer dollars to the casinos.’’

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Like so many Menino decisions, embracing Suffolk Downs while rebuffing Wal-Mart is all about the personal.

Menino’s longtime friend, Joe O’Donnell, is part of the racetrack’s ownership team. It was O’Donnell who first put Menino in touch with Richard Fields, the track’s principal owner. Menino has confirmed that his meeting with Fields turned him from tepid casino supporter to passionate cheerleader. Since then, Fields has donated thousands of dollars through a family foundation to charities affiliated with Menino. According to a recent Boston Globe report, the Fields Family Foundation donated $10,000 to Menino’s charity in 2008 and 2009. Menino said money has nothing to do with his support, and he’s probably right. His friendship with O’Donnell matters more.

On the miscalculation that money is the chief way to Menino’s heart, Wal-Mart sharply increased its charitable giving in Boston. This year, it donated more than $2.1 million to Boston nonprofits. The company also hired Nick Mitropoulos, a friend and one-time political adviser to Menino. However, that friendship has apparently soured and isn’t working to Wal-Mart’s benefit. The mayor told people Mitropoulos “betrayed’’ him when he went to work for Wal-Mart.

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Personal petulance rules the day in Menino’s Boston. It shapes policy and triumphs over economic principle. But this isn’t exactly a news flash. For the nearly two decades of Menino’s regime, it has defined the way business has been getting done. After all this time, it’s not just tiresome. It’s really bad for Boston.

In one breath, Menino tells a Labor Day breakfast that job creation should be the priority in Massachusetts. In the next, he says no to Wal-Mart, a master at job creation. As a corporation, Wal-Mart has its weaknesses, and the mayor should use his leverage to get the company to address them. But, in the final analysis, who would create more jobs at higher wages? Wal-Mart or the small retailers of Dudley Square who may have good intentions but unfortunately can’t match the merchandise variety or low prices of a giant discounter? The answer is obvious to everyone but Menino.

Meanwhile, if protecting local business is really Menino’s chief concern, how can he champion a casino at Suffolk Downs? Research compiled by United to Stop Slots in Massachusetts - an advocacy group that is trying to stop expanded gambling in Massachusetts - makes the case that local businesses are losers when gambling comes to town. Casinos are one-stop entertainment centers, providing food, drink, ATM machines, and more in one centralized location. What will that do to the North End?

When consumers spend their discretionary income on gambling, they also spend less on clothing, electronics, furniture, and cars. One study on the costs and benefits of casinos found that for every $1,000 in increased casino revenue, businesses up to 30 miles away lost $243.

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Finally, job growth in the casino industry will lead to job cuts elsewhere. The Boston Business Journal concluded that the claim that casinos will create 20,000 new jobs “is bogus because the diversion of billions of dollars in one sector is destined to cause job losses in other sectors.’’

On the merits, Menino can’t embrace Suffolk Downs as he rebuffs Wal-Mart. On the merits, Wal-Mart deserves his consideration and Suffolk Downs deserves his skepticism. But the merits don’t drive Menino. They never have, never will, and Boston loses because of it.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.