Suffolk down but not out

Boston lost a protracted, petty-looking battle to bring a proposed Everett casino into its orbit earlier this year. Now, with Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s former casino dance partner Suffolk Downs rebuffed by East Boston voters and eyeing a massive gambling facility just across the city line in Revere, Boston faces the prospect of re-running the same cross-border obstruction play it ran in Everett, but actually having to make it stick this time around.

The Suffolk Downs horse track straddles the Boston-Revere line. The track’s developers had initially contemplated building the vast majority of its proposed gambling facility on the Boston side of the line. The bulk of the site’s acreage lies in Boston. Its access road, parking lots, and track grandstands all sit in Boston. The casino plan that Suffolk Downs has been pushing for the past two years would have seen casino construction, along with traffic and parking infrastructure improvements, occurring chiefly in Boston. That’s all out the window now, after East Boston voters rejected the Suffolk Downs casino proposal by a 12-point margin. 

Suffolk Downs and Revere officials now plan to charge ahead with an effort to rejigger plans and  propose a casino solely on the Revere side of the horse track’s Boston-Revere property. “I’m not issuing 350 pink slips and telling the horsemen they can never come back before we have exhausted all of our options,” Suffolk COO Chip Tuttle tells the Globe today. Tuttle and his partners are now scrambling to reposition their proposed casino within the Revere portion of their property, and to renegotiate the host community agreement Revere voters approved last week.

Relocating a Suffolk Downs casino to Revere would mean turning the site’s previous plans upside-down. The Revere side of the track houses its back entrance, a parking lot for jockeys, and acres of horse stables. Suffolk’s old casino plans had these facilities remaining largely untouched, except for the addition of some surface parking lots; now, Suffolk and Revere are talking about uprooting the track’s horse racing operations, moving them over to Boston, and cramming acres of parking, hotel space and gaming floors onto a sliver of the track’s real estate along Route 145.

Suffolk Downs is troublesome for Boston because, even though the track spans two cities, it operates as a single entity. So what happens on the Revere side of the line greatly impacts the Boston side. Under the old deal, Suffolk had proposed sinking millions into surrounding road improvements, especially outside the track’s main entrance on Route 1A. The fate of those improvements is now up in the air — as is the question of how a Revere-only casino would handle traffic and parking. Wouldn’t new roadways and parking lots and horse racing stables, located in Boston but servicing a casino building in Revere, at least violate the spirit of last week’s East Boston referendum?

These are the arguments Menino tried to make earlier this year, when he tried to bully Steve Wynn out of town. A tiny sliver of Wynn’s Everett site lies in Boston, as does the main road running past Wynn’s property. Menino, a Suffolk Downs partisan, based his argument on the fact that Wynn’s customers would use Boston roads to access the Everett casino. He tried to argue that since Wynn was proposing to tidy up all of the post-industrial wasteland his casino would rise above, including the real estate in Boston, Wynn should have to negotiate a host community mitigation pact with Boston.

Menino’s claims were laughed down, largely because they were seen as a ploy to give Suffolk Downs leverage over the competition in Everett. Now, however, the prospect of Suffolk Downs trying to leverage infrastructure improvements in Boston in service of a casino across the city line is very real. If he wanted to, Menino could make a plausible argument that a Revere-only casino couldn’t realistically operate without leveraging Boston land, and that East Boston’s referendum last week shouldn’t allow such work to happen. The question is whether, after Menino’s episode with Wynn, anyone would listen.





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