(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
Grassroots opposition to building a $1 billion resort-style casino at Suffolk Downs is becoming increasingly organized, with dozens of anti-casino residents of East Boston and neighboring communities uniting to share information and strategize.
Some area residents began vocally opposing a casino in their backyard long before lawmakers passed legislation last November to allow gaming in the Commonwealth, and their efforts have increased as the process of considering a resort casino for the site has moved forward.
Residents are building their network of opposition at community meetings and through Facebook groups such as No Eastie Casino and Suffolk Downs Neighbor, both of which have also built websites dedicated to casino opposition.
About 40 casino opponents came together at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in East Boston on Wednesday night. At this stage, they said, their first priority is to inform their neighbors and build momentum so that when the time comes for a vote, they have the numbers necessary to defeat Suffolk Downs’ proposal.
Before any casino can open, voters will get a say. In large cities such as Boston, the state casino law limits a referendum to the local ward or neighborhood, unless the mayor and City Council opt for a citywide vote.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino prefers to restrict the vote to East Boston, and there appears to be little enthusiasm among city councilors for fighting the mayor’s wish. Opponents say this makes it crucial to educate residents in East Boston and Revere, where part of Suffolk Downs lies and where residents will also get a vote.
“Anything you can do to help spread the word [will help], because I think a lot of people are hearing one side of the story,” said Brian Gannon, 38, who has lived in East Boston's Jeffries Point section for three years.
John F. Ribeiro, who grew up in East Boston and has now “moved out to the country” in neighboring Winthrop, created the Suffolk Downs Neighbor Facebook page and website and has become a de-facto leader of the grassroots opposition. At Wednesday’s meeting, Ribeiro said he’s up late many nights reading studies and news reports on how casinos operate and their impacts on local communities.
Ribeiro said that through loyalty programs and loans to gamblers, casinos can access credit reports and create complex profiles of their customers, including all debts, assets, and available credit. The casinos, he said, can target individual gamblers and manipulate slot machines in real time to keep them playing until they have exhausted all cash and credit available to them, a concept he said the industry calls “playing to extinction.”
“In two years of studying the issue … I haven’t found a single community that’s better off for adding a casino,” Ribeiro said. “That’s the bottom line for all of this. Our backyard is full. We do enough for the state of Massachusetts, and we don’t need another thing to detract from the way of life here in East Boston.”
Other residents shared Ribeiro’s belief that the neighborhood — already home to Suffolk Downs, Logan International Airport, industrial sites, and hazardous materials storage — shoulders more than its burden of the region’s undesirable facilities.
Orient Heights resident Michael Russo, 42, lives in a home his grandfather bought in 1935 and said he plans to remain in the neighborhood for the rest of his life.
“I don’t think that we need another thing to impact that way of life,” Russo said. “I’m just deeply concerned about the state advocating something that could really topple a lot of the good things that are happening in this neighborhood right now.”
Jessica Curtis, 31, lives with her husband in the Wood Island area of East Boston and is an attorney for a consumer advocacy group. She has read the casino legislation, and she reviewed some of its provisions for her neighbors on Wednesday, explaining the roles of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and Boston’s Host Community Advisory Committee in deciding where a casino license will be granted and what mitigation efforts will be required.
“One really important thing to note, and the reason why we’re all gathered in this room today, is that both of these decision-making bodies already have assumed that a casino is going to happen, and their job is to make it happen in the best way possible,” Curtis said.
“And one thing that I think is really important for us to keep in mind as a community is that just because something is legal, just because this is now the law, doesn’t mean it’s good for us,” she continued. “There are a lot of things that are legal that are not good for us.”
Curtis exhorted other residents to contribute their ideas and skills to oppose the casino proposal, and several spoke of the need to spread the word to the neighborhood’s immigrant groups in their native languages. The group plans to continue meeting at the church approximately every two weeks as their effort continues.
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)