Suffolk Downs pact with city puts casino vote issue in spotlight

By 
Gintautas Dumcius, News Editor
Aug. 28, 2013

On a humid Tuesday afternoon, Bill Walczak was waiting outside City Hall. His mayoral campaign, like the others struggling for attention in a 12-person field, had just been handed a small gift from a few floors above: an agreement between the city and Suffolk Downs to bring money, jobs, and a $1 billion casino to East Boston. In other words, something specific to run against, aside from his opponents.

“My view of this is, ‘Stop the casino and let’s start planning an innovation district for East Boston,’ ” he told a small group of reporters after they came down from a press conference announcing the deal.

The agreement, which could funnel at least $32 million a year into city coffers, heads to the City Council and eventually to voters. City officials say there is little appetite on the 13-member council for a city-wide vote, so only East Boston is likely to be allowed to weigh in on whether there should be a casino in the neighborhood. The vote will probably take place before the mayoral election.

Walczak, who maintains that casinos carry negative social and public health costs, reiterated his position that it should be a citywide vote, and said he would push for voters to reject the proposed pact. Walczak has made his opposition to a casino a central part of his campaign.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time in East Boston campaigning and I will be spending a lot more time in East Boston,” Walczak said. “But I find this is an issue across the city.”

Walczak, who lives in Savin Hill and co-founded the Codman Square Health Center, said he received applause for his anti-casino position at a recent community meeting in West Roxbury. “You can’t get farther away from East Boston and still be in the city of Boston than in West Roxbury,” he said. “People in West Roxbury deeply care about this issue.”

Mayor Thomas Menino, a longtime champion of a Suffolk Downs casino, defended an Eastie-only vote at a City Hall press conference announcing the agreement. “It’s like when you have a zoning variance in your neighborhood,” he said. “It impacts that neighborhood. This impacts East Boston more than any other community in the city of Boston. I live out in Readville. Twelve miles away from this thing. That doesn’t impact me.”

District 1 City Councillor Sal LaMattina, whose council district includes East Boston, said he supports the proposal and backs keeping it only in East Boston.

City Council President Stephen Murphy said he also supports an Eastie-only referendum. The votes are not there for the City Council to demand a citywide vote, he added.

The agreement will come before the council at its Sept. 4 meeting, Murphy added, and there will be an Economic Development Committee hearing on the proposal. The committee is chaired by District 2 Councillor Bill Linehan.

The council is likely to come under fire from District Attorney Dan Conley, a mayoral candidate, if it plans to stick to an East Boston-only vote. Conley has questioned the legality of such a vote and said he would support a potential lawsuit against a neighborhood-only vote. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re one Boston; a casino, something that large over in East Boston is going to affect everybody in our city and everybody ought to have a vote,” Conley said at an Aug. 5 press conference outside City Hall.

Most of the other mayoral candidates, like Menino, support an East Boston-only vote.

Walczak has said if he is elected mayor and the casino is approved by voters, he will seek to reopen the deal with Suffolk Downs and attempt to pull the city out of it.

Asked whether he has spoken to Menino about his opposition to the casino, Walczak said, “The mayor’s not happy with me right now. But I can tell you that I told him that we have an honest disagreement on this and that my view is that this is a bad idea for the city of Boston in that it’s going to bring problems into the city of Boston that we don’t need, and secondarily, it’s not going to produce the jobs that are going to be meaningful for the citizens of Boston.”

The agreement includes an upfront payment to East Boston totaling $33.4 million for “community benefits.” Separately, a minimum of $45 million must be spent on infrastructure improvements to the area, including $9.32 million for city and neighborhood intersection and roadways, and improvements to the Suffolk Downs MBTA station, bike lanes, and a subsidized water ferry.

The agreement also demands a commitment from the developers to the Boston Residents Jobs Policy, which calls for certain employment percentages of residents, minorities and women at construction sites.

“I have said from the start of this process that I wanted three things: A first-class resort destination casino, an agreement that would benefit the people of East Boston, and a proposal that will be selected by the State Gaming Commission. We are well on our way to that and more,” Menino said in a statement.

The completed application, which must include a successful referendum, has to be sent to the state’s gambling commission by the end of the year.