John Antonellis is our guest writer on today's post. John has been a resident of Eagle Hill in East Boston for close to 15 years and a homeowner there for 12. He is the Lead Instructor at the Harvard Bridge Program, a worker education program for employees at Harvard University.
Something stinks in East Boston, and it isn't the litter and garbage that we're fond of bemoaning. It isn't the piles of horse manure from the stalls at Suffolk Downs, but you're getting close. On Wednesday night the stench was emanating from a meeting to present and garner community input on Suffolk Downs' plan to improve the roadways around the proposed casino - put on by the mayor's Host Community Advisory Committee's (HCAC). Or was the meeting run by Suffolk Downs? From an observer's point of view, it was hard to tell the difference, since audience members were forced to stare at the Suffolk Downs/Caesars (SDC) logo for a half-hour as we waited for the meeting to start.
I'm sure that from the perspective of the HCAC the meeting was an overwhelming success. As in other meetings, the talking heads got to do their thing, with too little time for questions and too few answers for those of us who are convinced that locating a casino in a working-class neighborhood is a bad idea. The meeting achieved its purpose. It was held. So, should Suffolk Downs/Caesars win their proposal for operating a casino in East Boston, city officials can honestly say "community meetings were held." But attendance was fairly light for such an important meeting. Maybe it was because folks have already made up their mind, or maybe it was because folks are tired of the endless stream of hot air emanating from the HCAC and lack of substance or answers to the questions we raise over and over and over. During the question period, our elected officials hogged the mike for what felt to me like an inordinate period of time, practically tripping over each other like school girls expressing their adoration of Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle and his proposed flyover.
By some accounts Suffolk Downs/Caesars appears to hold all the cards. They have every local elected official and the East Boston Chamber of Commerce in their pockets. They have deep pockets and can easily outspend those of us who don't support this venture. But I've looked deep in my heart and I just don't see how expanded gambling at Suffolk Downs can turn out OK for East Boston. From my perspective, we lose big whether Suffolk Downs/Caesars is a big success or a whopping failure.
If it is successful, then the needs for mitigation will increase dramatically and the Band-aid of a flyover will not be enough to offset the increased traffic, or other problems associated with casinos (higher auto insurance rates, lower property values, increased foreclosures, fewer local businesses, loss of jobs, etc.) Former secretary of transportation James Aloisi detailed what he felt was needed to improve the transportation problems in the June 7, 2012, issue of CommonWealth Magazine. Not one of those suggestions was considered at the HCAC meeting, even though at one point the Commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department, Thomas Tinlin, mentioned that "money was no object" in their effort to make sure things were "done right." The most "neutral" official speaker was Rick Bryant from Stantec Consulting, the company hired by the city to make sure that SDC's proposed mitigation plan makes sense. He raised a number of questions and concerns in response to SDC's proposal. But there was no plan for when these questions would be addressed or how that information would be relayed to the community.
If the Suffolk Downs/Caesars venture is a failure, they will be unable to honor their mitigation commitments, and all of Boston's residents will pay for that. It's a well-known fact that Caesars already owes its creditors billions. With three casinos in Massachusetts, and more planned for New Hampshire and Maine, just how much disposable income does SDC imagine residents of the Commonwealth will have to lose in a slot machine, or gamble away at a table? Just how many casinos can this region support?
When asked about the percentage of patrons expected to be made up by local traffic, Chip Tuttle didn't want to provide that information for fear that he might misspeak. Really, Chip? At a meeting about transportation, you forgot to bring your demographic information? And no one else on the HCAC had that information either – big surprise there. Chip promised to "let us know." Well, I'm still waiting for Chip to "let us know" more details about the 4,000 jobs he's going to be creating with salaries supposedly averaging $40,000. Is Chip's salary and those of other executives bumping up that average? How many of those 4,000 jobs will be part-time? How many will pay $20,000 per year or less? He's not saying, and none of our elected officials appear to be asking.
My expectation is that the casino intends to strongly market their outreach to the local working families of East Boston and surrounding communities. We all know that the working poor support the lottery in greater numbers than your average citizen and that East Boston has a very large population of workers who are barely getting by. According to 2010 census data, 46 percent of East Boston households earn less than $40,000 per year, while 22 percent earn below $20,000 — practically extreme poverty by Boston standards. These same people are more likely to be tempted to try to break out of the cycle of poverty by trying their luck at the casino - especially one located in their back yard. Only, at a casino – where friendly casino employees ply players with free alcohol, access their credit history and offer on-the-spot loans – the stakes are much higher and the losses much bigger.
Chip Tuttle knows all this. Our elected officials know this. The Governor knows this. So it seems to me to be a pretty misguided plan to use expanded gambling as a way to make up for the Commonwealth's budget shortfalls knowing that the income will be largely generated from the losing's of some our most vulnerable residents. From my perspective, having such blatant disregard for working families should be an impeachable offense. We deserve better government.
It's time for the media to start asking some hard questions of their own. Like why was the legislature allowed to pass a law that opened the door to expanded gambling without voter approval? This is your legacy, Gov. Patrick, and it stinks. I expected better of you.
What is the connection between the 180-degree turn each of our elected officials made on the casino issue and donations they each received from Suffolk Downs? One wonders what other promises were made.
And what, exactly, happened that changed the period legislators must wait before accepting employment from a casino from 5 years to just one year? That smells pretty bad too.
I strongly urge anyone who is able to vote on this issue not to be swayed by the odorous propaganda coming from Suffolk Downs/Caesars and from the mouths of our elected officials – an odor that was especially pungent at Wednesday's transportation meeting. Vote NO on the mitigation package. I also encourage you not to support any of our current elected officials in their next election. In lieu of any real political representation, my favorite write-in candidate is No Eastie Casino.