BOSTON MAY be a city of distinct neighborhoods, but the development of a casino in any of those neighborhoods would be a major new presence in the entire community’s economic and political life. In that spirit, any proposal for a casino at Suffolk Downs should be put to a public vote not just in East Boston, but all across the city.
Lawmakers have contemplated requiring a referendum in any city or town that might play host to a casino. But last week, the state Senate adopted an amendment that would restrict any public vote in a city with more than 125,000 residents to the ward that includes the site of the casino. In theory, the provision would affect Springfield and Worcester as well as Boston. But the intent is evident: The Suffolk Downs property is widely viewed as a leading contender for a casino license, and the sponsor of the amendment, East Boston Democrat Anthony Petruccelli, has said he favors a resort casino at Suffolk Downs. The presumption, no doubt, is that East Boston residents may find the promise of thousands of jobs far more alluring than do voters in, say, Back Bay.
But even for casino advocates, the relevant question shouldn’t be which legislative provisions make it easiest to jam a casino into existence. The focus should be on how to ensure that casinos, if legalized, will operate in harmony with their host communities.
Though East Boston is separated by water from the rest of the city, it’s not far from the North End, where some restaurateurs may view a resort casino across the harbor as a competitor, while others may see a chance to attract high rollers. The presence of a casino also affects public policy and public finance across an entire municipality — from how it chooses to deploy police officers to where it spends street-improvement money. Any potential host community should have a broad, open debate about the benefits and costs of gambling. And if casino advocates win a fair fight communitywide, the resulting project will have far more public legitimacy than if legislators get casinos approved through shortcuts and sleight of hand.