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Joan Vennochi

All of Boston should vote on a Suffolk Downs casino

If a Suffolk Downs casino is win-win for all of Boston, why can’t all of Boston vote on it?

Under the state’s new gambling law, large cities like Boston can limit a vote to the wards in which a casino would be located. In the case of Suffolk Downs, that means only voters in Revere and East Boston must endorse the proposal for a $1 billion, 163-acre gambling resort casino, dubbed “an urban oasis” by its promoters.

Asked about the referendum’s limited scope at a press conference packed with enthusiastic supporters on Tuesday, Chip Tuttle, Suffolk’s chief operating officer, cheerfully blamed lawmakers for this highly fortuitous outcome. “How we feel at this stage really doesn’t make much difference,” said Tuttle, because “that’s the way the legislation was crafted …”


But Tuttle ultimately acknowledged the real reason behind such a narrowly engineered vote: “I think the folks in East Boston, who just clapped, would be concerned that the city as a whole might have a different outcome than East Boston on its own.”

The folks who thunderously applauded the casino proposal were part of a well-orchestrated roll-out of the plan to plop 200,000 square feet of slot machines, gaming tables, restaurants, retail shops, and a hotel at the site of the 77-year-old race track.

According to Gary Loveman, chairman, CEO, and president of Caesars Entertainment, this magnificent complex will lure 45 million gambling-loving adults from across America to Route 1A. Traffic improvement plans are pending, and the developers are promising to put $40 million into transportation upgrades.

A Commonwealth Avenue-like boulevard will serve as a “bridge from the world you know to a different world,” architect David Manfredi told a sympathetic crowd. “Guests” who travel via MBTA will step off the Blue Line into an “urban piazza,” he added.

According to Suffolk’s promoters, these guests will not only gamble their hearts and wallets away, they will spill out of their glass-encased gambling palace and into the city’s restaurants, museums, and other tourist attractions.


If that’s the case, all Bostonians should be thrilled and eager to embrace this new, finely calibrated economic engine, which its backers promise will generate 2,500 construction jobs and 4,000 new full time union jobs. However, all Bostonians won’t get a chance to express their delight because of how the law is written, and because Mayor Thomas Menino embraces it, as is.

That’s the real power behind the proposal.

Under the state’s gambling law, the mayor and Boston City Council could call for a citywide referendum. But Menino has made it clear he opposes such a vote. When he handpicked a five-member advisory committee to help negotiate a casino mitigation package, he said debate over a citywide vote was off the table. Menino’s stand is rooted in his belief in the overall economic benefits of a Suffolk Downs casino, and bolstered by his friendship with Joe O’Donnell, one of Suffolk’s principal stakeholders. So far, city councilors show no interest in challenging the mayor’s position.

In a brief exchange after the press conference, Loveman disputed the notion that the “urban oasis” Caesars wants to create at Suffolk Downs would drain business from nearby enterprises. He pointed to Caesars’ experience with casinos in Cleveland and New Orleans, which draw 15,000 “new” visitors a day.

Yet the Suffolk proposal calls for hotel with only 300 rooms. That makes the proposed casino a lot less like a Foxwoods-like destination for new visitors, and more like a local entertainment attraction that could undercut other local entertainment destinations. If gamblers are driving in from the Cape, rather than flying into a destination resort, that also means more local traffic will be plugging up already crowded local roads.


Casino opponents cite studies that show a negative economic impact on surrounding communities. One of their favorite quotes comes from Donald Trump, who once confessed the truth to the The Miami Herald: “People will spend a tremendous amount of money in casinos, money that they would normally spend on buying a refrigerator or a new car. Local businesses will suffer because they lose customer dollars to the casinos,” he said.

If there really are two sides to this story, all Bostonians should have the chance to hear them, weigh them, and vote on them, just like other communities.

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