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Between the Lines: Maybe Not Such a Sure Bet

Who said casinos in Massachusetts were a done deal?

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

When I moved to the Valley in 1996, casino gambling was a red-hot issue. A number of communities had already voted on whether they would welcome a casino inside their borders. In Holyoke, they’d said yes; in Springfield, where the matter was a major factor in the 1995 mayor’s race, they’d said no. Now the focus had shifted to the state Legislature, which would have to pass a bill allowing casino gambling in the commonwealth. In Boston, casino lobbyists were swarming the halls of the Statehouse. So were casino opponents, including a coalition of grassroots activists from up and down the Valley.

In the end, the casino effort failed.But the casino backers were undeterred, and finally, after several false starts—and with the boosting of Gov. Deval Patrick, who began pushing casino legislation shortly after being elected to his first term—in 2011, a bill allowing up to three casinos and one slots parlor was signed into law.

But this time around, things felt markedly different. The casino lobbyists were still around, of course. But the opposition was more muted, more resigned to the idea that casinos were—to use a word I heard repeatedly—inevitable. Democratic state legislators who had opposed gambling expansion now acquiesced to the pressures of party leadership and went along with it. As state Rep. Ellen Story of Amherst put it—frankly, if dishearteningly—in an interview with the Gazette, a vote against casinos would “be symbolic, but meaningless” and would cost her her recently won place in “the inner circle of advisers” to House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Meanwhile, in Springfield—which quickly emerged as the hot spot of casino activity—I heard from a number of community activists that while they personally didn’t want a casino in the city, and had reservations about its potential effects, they didn’t see much point in fighting to keep one out. After all, they reasoned, a Springfield casino was pretty much—that word again—inevitable, and they’d be better off focusing their energies on ensuring that whichever company won development rights would provide good jobs, agree to hire locally, contribute to worthy community projects.

Indeed, Springfield voters did approve a casino proposal last summer, after a well-financed PR campaign by MGM, helped by the spirited backing of the Sarno administration. But that “yes” casino vote was promptly followed by a string of “no” votes: in West Springfield, Palmer, East Boston, and, last week, Milford. Apparently not everyone received the memo that casinos are inevitable.

Casino backers will no doubt diagnose the residents of those refractory communities with a severe case of NIMBYism, especially in light of a recent Western New England University poll showing that while 61 percent of Massachusetts adults support casinos in the state, only 42 percent would welcome one in their town or city. But here’s a different read: voters’ reaction to a detailed proposal for their community—with specifics about tax revenue, job creation, traffic patterns, social costs—are very different from their response to the more generalized, and rosy, pitch they’ve been hearing for years about the purported benefits of casinos. Suddenly, nothing seems inevitable any more. And fighting back is starting to feel like an option.•

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