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Debate on opening casinos in Massachusetts reflects new attitude

By Peter J. Howe
Globe Staff / September 18, 2007

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Three years ago, you couldn't even buy a six-pack of beer on Sunday in most Massachusetts cities and towns - and now the governor is proposing not just one but three casinos.

Despite some lingering vestiges of a Puritan blue law culture that brought "banned in Boston" to the nation's vocabulary, Governor Deval Patrick's willingness to embrace casinos represents a fundamental shift over the last generation in Bay State residents' comfort level with the ethics and glitz of gambling.

Massachusetts, in fact, has been wading slowly into gambling for decades. In the 35 years since its founding as an alternative to Mob-run numbers rackets, the aggressively marketed state lottery has exploded into a $4 billion annual enterprise. The Massachusetts State Lottery Commission crossed a key line in 1993 when it began sponsoring electronic Keno games with drawings every five minutes that turned hundreds of bars, restaurants, and convenience stores into Keno parlors.

"You have to look at the state's responsibility as being a great cheerleader for gambling, encouraging people to play Keno, buy scratch tickets, play Megabucks," said state Senator Richard R. Tisei, a Wakefield Republican who backs Patrick's casino plan.

Also, the opening of the Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun Indian tribal casinos in southeastern Connecticut in 1993 and 1996 has allowed hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents to get their first direct taste of casino gambling.

Every year, 29 percent of Massachusetts adults pay at least one visit to the Connecticut casinos or the Twin River slot machine hall in Rhode Island, the former Lincoln Park dog track, according to a survey by the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

"As people become familiar with it, it's come to be seen as an acceptable form of entertainment and really just another form of entertainment," said center director and professor Clyde W. Barrow.

Younger people are overwhelmingly more comfortable with casinos than older, Barrow said, and every year since the mid-1990s polls have shown a 1 to 2 percent net gain in support for casinos among Massachusetts voters. Many supporters, Barrow said, are just pragmatists who want Massachusetts to keep money that is currently being spent at gambling operations in Connecticut or Rhode Island. According to a survey conducted last fall by UMass-Dartmouth, 56 percent of Bay State casino supporters say they are not gamblers.

Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who is neutral on Patrick's casino plan, said the attitudes of even those who don't go to casinos in Connecticut have been reshaped by Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun advertising.

"I think if you had asked people here 20 years ago, what's a casino, the answer would have been, it's some place in Atlantic City or Las Vegas, and there was something a little questionable about it," Galvin said. "Now think about how much money has been spent in the last 10 years in Boston and Massachusetts media markets to encourage people to come to those casinos, the message about excitement and fun. Obviously, that's having a cumulative effect."

Some critics say casino interests have helped shift public opinion by promoting the word gaming as a substitute for gambling.

"It's been a very intentional effort by the gambling industry to change the way that people think about this, to make it palatable," said Laura Everett, associate director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, an advocacy group for the state's Protestant denominations that opposes casino gambling. "A number of policy makers and media outlets will refer to this as gaming, as if this is entertainment, rather than an effort to separate people from their money."

Massachusetts' cultural reputation as a blue laws bastion has been eroding for years, as the state and much of the nation have grown steadily more secular and socially libertarian. To many, the real surprise may be that it wasn't until 1994 that the state let business owners open their doors before noon Sunday and that it wasn't until 2004 that the state let communities allow liquor stores to open regularly on Sundays.

Patrick's support for casinos still faces strong opposition from House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi and other leading legislators. If casinos are approved, their impact on Massachusetts' sense of itself will probably turn heavily on whether they are located in outlying areas, as in Connecticut, or in cities, where the glamour and social downside of gambling could be observed daily and where they could have economic effects on existing hotels, restaurants, and entertainment venues.

Scottsdale, Ariz., an upscale suburb of Phoenix, is one example of a community that discovered changes after the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community struck a deal with the state to build two casinos on tribal land 10 years ago.

"We've seen substantial economic development activity from gaming, and it's become sort of an adjunct amenity to everything else Scottsdale has to offer from a tourism perspective," Rick Kidder, chief executive of the Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce, said by phone. "It's been, in that sense, a win-win for both communities."

"The reality is that there are negative consequences that come as a result of casino gaming - there are shattered lives everywhere from problem gambling - but the community of Scottsdale has not felt that much," he said. "That said, if you ever put it to a vote whether we'd have casinos in our downtown, outside the native areas, I'm certain that it would go down in political flames."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.