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All-out casino warfare

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / May 3, 2012
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Joe Crist was fresh out of the Navy and looking for a place to raise a family when he bought a house in Foxborough 46 years ago.

“It was the only place I could afford in a little country setting,’’ said Crist, a father of four and grandfather of eight who commuted to the Gillette company in South Boston.

Now retired, Crist says he is being barraged by a marketing campaign bent on persuading residents to support Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn’s plan to build a $1 billion casino on land leased from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

That barrage isn’t letting up ahead of next Monday’s town election, in which the casino is the paramount issue in the race for two selectmen’s seats. Wynn is touting the thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue he says the project will bring, dangling such perks as free child care for employees, a new hospital, and even an ice skating rink, if the Board of Selectmen — which has thus far rejected the notion — will say yes.

Crist isn’t buying.

“The unemployment rate here is 4 percent, well below the state and national average,’’ said Crist, who said he resents the constant “sales pitches disguised as phone surveys” asking how he plans to vote in the election.

“This is obviously a well-funded and sophisticated effort to try to convince us it’s a good idea to place this in our town,’’ Crist said. “I wish the whole thing would go away.”

For some others, however, the message is getting through.

Real estate agent Millie Cetrone has lived in Foxborough for 31 years, raising four children. When the casino was first proposed, Cetrone opposed it. But after receiving a DVD from Wynn and seeing the marketing materials, Cedrone said, she changed her mind so completely that she became a steering committee member of Jobs for Foxboro, a Wynn-backed group advocating for the casino.

“When I saw the DVD I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful building,’ ’’ Cetrone said. “I’m all for the jobs and investing money in Foxborough. And it’s the perfect location.’’

Cetrone said selectmen candidates’ positions on the casino will guide her vote. “How do you take our vote away? It’s time for a change.”

Although the messages from the Wynn group don’t endorse any candidates, the public relations blitz has become a surrogate for political campaigning. With the current Board of Selectmen split 3 to 2 against negotiating with Wynn on the casino, the election could swing the balance in the other direction, and the voting is expected to be heavily influenced by the candidates’ positions on the casino.

Incumbents Lorraine Brue and Larry Harrington, who is chairman of the Board of Selectmen, are facing Ginny Coppola, a former state representative, and Martha Slattery, a longtime School Committee member.

Harrington and Slattery have not endorsed the casino project, but say they want to hear more details about Wynn’s plans. Brue and Coppola are opposed to the project and say the Board of Selectmen shouldn’t consider the subject any further.

Foxborough Town Clerk Bob Cutler said he has already received about 200 requests for absentee ballots, and he expects voting to be brisk.

“We typically have a 20 percent to 30 percent turnout for annual elections,’’ he said, “but this year, I am expecting well in excess of 50 percent.”

After news of the casino proposal leaked out early last December, casino opponents got the jump in the fight for public opinion by mounting a grass-roots effort centered on social media.

In the last couple of months, however, the volume of communication has been clearly weighted toward the pro-casino side. Wynn’s letters, nowadays signed “Steve,” regularly arrive in mailboxes, while advertisements appear on radio and cable television and in leaflets, fliers, and the local papers.

Then there are the visits from Wynn Resorts “ambassadors,” ranging from Troy Mitchum, Wynn’s director of guest services, to Patty Cartin, gaming floor manager. Last month, six of these respresentatives flew in from Las Vegas for a week of meet-and-greet sessions, with buffet and open bar, with local residents.

In the meantime, the Wynn group has hired door-to-door canvassers to talk to residents and drop off literature. Neither a spokeswoman for Wynn Resorts nor one from Sage Systems in Boston, which is handling the PR efforts, would comment on the campaign’s intent or cost.

The onslaught has provoked an aggressive response from one resident. Patti Prezost marks all of Wynn’s letters “Return to sender” and takes them to the post office where Jobs for Foxboro has a post office box.

Prezost said she posted a sign reading “Mr. Kraft Don’t Gamble With Our Kids” on her lawn, but it was stolen. So she hand-made another sign on a piece of plywood, which she brings in every night to protect. It reads: “You can steal my sign, but you can’t change my mind.”

Police Chief Edward O’Leary estimated that police have received more than a dozen reports of stolen “casiNO” signs, but added, “It did slow down once it was announced that people would be charged if found taking or destroying signs.”

Prezost said she doesn’t need letters from Wynn to influence her judgment on the casino. “I looked for pluses and the good in this proposal, but I couldn’t find any,” she said.

She said she’s frustrated with residents who say Kraft is entitled to do what he wants because of his generosity toward the town he calls his second home.

“If Mr. Kraft was proposing this to his hometown of Brookline, they sure wouldn’t tolerate it,’’ she said. “He’s a businessman, and I do respect him for that, but he does nothing that isn’t in his own best interests.”

Meanwhile, opponents of the casino plan have been sticking with a grass-roots effort out of necessity, since they have hardly any budget. They have been pooling their talents and kicking in money to print signs, distribute petitions, and hold informational kaffeklatsches at locations around town.

Last week, Foxborough residents Chris and Holly Steel, who both have backgrounds in TV and media, released a 28-minute video they made independently that looks at how Ledyard, Conn., was affected by the arrival of the Foxwoods Resort Casino. The film is being broadcast on YouTube and the town’s cable access channel.

“The overwhelming point town leaders in Connecticut made was, looking back and knowing what they know now, if they had an option, they would have said ‘no’ to a casino in their area,’’ Steel said. “They want us to understand what it has cost them.”

And then there are some residents, like Trent Sherwood, who aren’t ruffled by efforts on either side to sway public opinion.

“I am neither pro- or anti-casino,’’ said Sherwood, a 10-year resident. “I’m just somebody who would like to hear the application and the plan to mitigate concerns.”

Sherwood said he finds it strange that anyone in a town as small as Foxborough would oppose a potential influx of $10 million to $15 million in revenue a year, plus thousands of jobs.

As for the selectmen’s race, Sherwood said candidates’ stances on the casino will definitely affect his vote. “I don’t want someone I’m electing to say, ‘I already made the decision.’ It’s very embarrassing because we all understand what Robert Kraft has done for this town,” Sherwood said.

In the end, Sherwood said, Foxborough residents are smart enough to hear a plan and vote however they want. “Then we can put this behind us once and for all,” he said.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at

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