Suffolk Downs Revere Casino Craziness, Explained

East Boston said "no." Revere said "yes." Now what?

So, if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably spent the last couple weeks wondering one thing: what in the name of George Washington’s white horse is going on at Suffolk Downs?

For the last six years, the East Boston horse track has been plotting to open a grand casino resort, built into its track’s grandstand. Since Suffolk Downs straddles the line between East Boston and Revere, on election day, both communities held referendums on the plan (the bulk of the development, though, was planned for Eastie). While East Boston voters swatted away the referendum by a 56-44 percent margin, in Revere the count was 61-39 percent in favor. As a result, Suffolk Downs has shifted gears to relocate their entire proposed casino within the 52 acres they own in Revere. Eastie residents, of course, are apoplectic, fearing now that they’ll get all of the casino headaches they voted against, but without nearly as much money in compensation. This has led to a series of questions about Suffolk Downs:

  • Can they do this?
  • Should they do this?
  • Will East Boston raise an angry mob to invade Revere if they do this?

Let me try to answer the first two, and then we’ll just have to see how the third question plays out. OK, so, some nuts and bolts:

After proposing their casino plan, Suffolk Downs entered into so-called “host community agreements” with both Revere and Boston. The track is arguing that although their deal with Boston is now moot, the one with Revere is as good as ever. They believe that they can simply negotiate amendments into the Revere agreement, reflecting the change of plans. Revere mayor Dan Rizzo is enthusiastically on board and working with the track. His city, obviously, would be in line to pick up many of the tens of millions of dollars previously earmarked for Boston. (We don’t know yet exactly what those dollar figures will look like.)

“We’ve just started the conversations with Mayor Rizzo and his team on amending the host community agreement,” Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle told me yesterday.

Even though Revere residents will now be getting something very different than what they originally voted on, Tuttle said he does not believe a new referendum is necessary. (With a December 31 state deadline for having casino applications completed, there wouldn’t be time for one anyway.)

Meanwhile, Suffolk Downs is redesigning their casino resort plan to reflect the fact that they will no longer have a horse track to plug it into (the horse track is in East Boston, meaning that any casino would not be able to have anything to do with it).

“As we look toward the Revere parcel, it allows us the opportunity to try to connect the development more with Revere Beach than we had looked at in the prior version,” Tuttle said. So there’s that. Meanwhile, after dropping their old partner last month, Caesars Entertainment, the track expects to have a new one in place by the end of this one.

So is this legal? Can Suffolk Downs change their plan so drastically so quickly? Can they do it without a new vote from Revere? Can they do it even though East Boston already said no?

The answer is that nobody knows. I’ve read the ballot question portion of the Massachusetts gaming law up and down and it simply does not anticipate this type of scenario, where a casino straddles two city lines, and one says “yes,” while the other says “no.” You could read the language one way and interpret Suffolk Downs as being totally within their rights. You could just as easily interpret the law as saying that East Boston’s vote should kill the entire project. This is maiden territory here in Massachusetts: the state gaming commission will have to make a judgment call, plain and simple.

Here’s the more interesting question: should Suffolk Downs be able to do this? In yesterday’s Globe, columnist Yvonne Abraham made a compelling argument for why they shouldn’t: East Boston said no and that should be respected.

That’s fair, but here’s the thing: Somerville and Charlestown don’t want a casino right next door either. Those two communities are within spitting distance of the proposed Steve Wynn extravaganza in Everett, which, if Suffolk Downs is knocked out and Foxwoods doesn’t get its act together in Milford, would be the only bidder left for the eastern Massachusetts casino license. The main access road to the planned Everett casino comes directly from Charlestown (have fun with that traffic) and Somerville mayor Joe Curtatone has railed against having a gambling mecca so near his resurgent city. (Standing at the Wynn Everett project site, you can see Somerville’s new, multi-million dollar Assembly Row development rising, just across the Mystic River).

The only difference between East Boston and Somerville and Charlestown is that the latter two communities haven’t gotten a chance to vote. I’d wager that if Somerville got to have a referendum on a casino next door, it’d go down by an even wider margin than the vote in East Boston.

There’s no doubt that what Suffolk Downs is trying to do is, as Abraham put it, “a lawyerly sleight of hand,” but the gaming commission needs options right now. If the commissioners deem Suffolk Downs’s pivot to be legally kosher, so be it. After all, Revere does want a casino, very much. And putting one there, just over the line from East Boston, a community that opposes it, doesn’t strike me as too different than putting one in Everett, beside Somerville and Charlestown, communities that oppose it.

If you want to dole out blame for this whole fiasco, look to our lawmakers, who passed a casino bill without strong protections for neighboring cities and towns. Apparently it never occurred to anyone on Beacon Hill that a casino perched right on a municipal border could make just as big an impact on the community next door as the one it’s in.

Then again, maybe we’ve all been asking the wrong question about whether Massachusetts should have casinos from the start. Support for whether or not the state should legalize them consistently polled over 50 percent, but really, the proper question would have been this: How do you feel about one in your own backyard?