The Massachusetts Gaming Commission put Suffolk Downs out of business last week, when it handed Steve Wynn a coveted casino gambling license. Dreams of slot machines and table games were all that kept the politically wired East Boston horseracing track from closing long ago. When those dreams vanished, the axe fell swiftly on Suffolk: The track’s owners announced racing at the state’s only thoroughbred track will end within weeks.
There’s a funereal pall hanging over these last races. Hundreds of locals who work at the track are losing their jobs. Scores of seasonal racing workers used to shuttling up to Boston for the summer won’t be back.
Even so, losing the casino sweepstakes is the best thing that could have happened to Suffolk Downs and Greater Boston. It pulls the track off life support, and clears the way for the largest development site in Boston to finally get on with its next act.
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Horse racing is a lousy business to be in these days, and Suffolk Downs caters to a market that doesn’t exist anymore. On race days, jockeys charge past stands that are mostly empty. The track’s current owners, a group headed by local concessionaire Joe O’Donnell and casino developer Richard Fields, have lost over $50 million on the place since 2007.
They kept Suffolk Downs open because they figured that operating a money-losing racetrack was the surest way of securing a license to open a casino in Boston. New York, Maryland, and Pennsylvania all backed into the casino game by plunking gaming halls on top of fading racetracks. Suffolk had that regional history on its side, plus political muscle from the current House speaker and the former mayor of Boston. So the East Boston track limped along, hoping for a payday that never came.
The aura of inevitability that Suffolk Downs projected did the track, and Boston, no favors. It short-circuited a wider conversation about whether the horse track was worth propping up.
From the beginning of the casino chase, Suffolk Downs has been pushing a two-pronged argument — that putting a casino along the East Boston-Revere line would bring new jobs, while rescuing the ones connected to the track’s stables. Never once did the track or its political sponsors wonder whether the neighborhood could do better. Now, with the casino license heading up the Mystic River to Everett, the area has a chance to become Boston’s next great neighborhood-building project.
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Suffolk Downs spans 160 acres in East Boston and Revere. It’s the largest open parcel in or around Boston. It’s bigger than the Seaport District, and three times as large as Somerville’s Assembly Row development. It’s a blank slate sitting on top of a pair of Blue Line subway stations.
The Assembly parallel is one East Boston and Revere residents should seize on. Assembly Square was supposed to be a low-grade retail subdivision, until Somerville residents rose up and demanded something better: a new neighborhood full of shops, apartments and offices. It took work to get city officials and developers to appreciate the potential of a blank slate along the river, minutes from downtown Boston. It’s now a place that speaks to city’s economic future. And at full build-out, Assembly will generate far more jobs than the Everett casino.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.