When it comes to efforts to stop a casino at Suffolk Downs, it’s David versus Goliath in East Boston.
Track operators, who spent decades lobbying their Beacon Hill representatives and wooing their Eastie neighbors, can bank on support from Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and a pack of other powerful politicians.
But a tiny band of neighborhood activists is still vowing to fight what now feels like destiny: a gambling mecca plopped alongside a major commuting artery slicing through an unsightly gas tank alley.
Suffolk Downs has money and political muscle, but casino opponents aren’t giving up, said Celeste Myers, one of the organizers behind “No Eastie Casino.” Although admittedly small in number and influence, “what we hold in common is that we don’t think East Boston is the right place to build a casino,” said Myers.
Massachusetts embraced casino gambling last November and a new state gaming commission is moving forward to advance the goal of building three facilities in designated Bay State districts. For the commission, the debate over the pros and cons of casinos is over. It picked Frank Fahrenkopf, a prominent casino lobbyist, as its keynote speaker for its first public educational forum.
Under the state’s new law, a developer must reach a pact with the city before applying for one of the three licenses. To smooth that process, Menino recently appointed his own panel to forge a deal with developers pushing a Suffolk Down’s casino. The mayor eagerly supports that outcome. He doesn’t want a citywide referendum on the proposal. He wants the vote limited to East Boston residents — what is supposedly an easy “yes.”
Myers said she worked as a volunteer for Menino’s past mayoral campaigns, as well as for other politicians who are now pushing for Suffolk Downs to win one of the coveted casino licenses. “People I worked closely with, people I believe in, we’re at odds now,” she said. “They believe it’s the right thing for the community. I don’t see the added value.”
She is often asked if her group is linked to Steve Wynn and his competing plan for a casino in Foxborough; it isn’t, she said. A lifelong East Boston resident, Myers said she is only trying to help the community achieve its true potential: “We can look across the harbor and see one of the greatest cities in the country, if not the world. Yet here we are pandering to the lowest common denominator.”
Menino recently offered up a fresh vision for the long-neglected East Boston waterfront that embraces new homes, shops, restaurants, and public spaces. When he announced these plans, some residents wondered whether the mayor’s newfound focus on Eastie was an effort to quiet or distract casino opponents.
The community has a long history of activism. In the 1960s and ’70s, East Boston mothers lay down in the streets to protest airport expansion. When police cutbacks were announced in the 1980s, marchers stopped traffic in front of the Callahan Tunnel and took over an East Boston police station that then-Mayor Kevin White shut down. After a near-confrontation with angry demonstrators, White, who had a penchant for the dramatic, said he feared the crowd “might have killed me.” But he knew when he was out-played, and reopened the police station.
Unlike activists from Eastie’s past, this handful of casino opponents barely registers as a force. Can they somehow turn what has been minimal opposition into a powerful grassroots movement? That’s what the people behind “No Eastie Casino” are hoping to do. Community meeting by community meeting, they are trying to convince residents that a casino in their backyard is not in their best interests, no matter what the track, the pols, and the labor unions tell them.
Suffolk Downs operators have worked hard to woo their neighbors. As reported previously by the Globe, the owner of Suffolk Downs has donated thousands of dollars to charities closely associated with politicians whose support he needs. The Fields Foundation, controlled by Suffolk owner Richard Fields, also contributes generously to local community charities. Suffolk Downs is front and center at East Boston charitable events.
But money can’t buy everyone’s love, and political muscle won’t pummel everyone in East Boston into submission.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.