Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com
East Boston residents at a recent meeting expressed strong reservations about a proposed $1 billion resort casino at the Suffolk Downs thoroughbred racetrack.
Representatives from the city’s Host Community Advisory Committee — charged with negotiating a mitigation agreement with Suffolk Downs and its partner, Caesars Entertainment — came before the Eagle Hill Civic Association with ample information about the negotiation process.
But they had few answers for casino opponents who asked about potential effects on jobs, the environment, traffic, and crime.
Some residents questioned the approval process, saying the city should look at residents’ opinions from the outset rather than waiting for a vote at the end of a long negotiation.
Giordana Mecagni, a casino opponent, cited a recent survey showing that more than half the neighborhood’s residents oppose a casino.
She expressed concern about the city’s role, asking whether residents could trust consultants working for an advisory committee that appeared to be focused on bringing a casino to East Boston.
“You guys are hiring these people, and it’s your job … to put together a package that is desirable for the community so that we all vote for the casino,” Mecagni said. “Because your job isn’t … to do the will of the community if we decide that we don’t want it.”
In response to complaints, Elizabeth Dello Russo, executive director of the advisory committee, said state law mandates the steps the city must take.
Dello Russo said the city is now researching and analyzing the proposal and information on casinos in other cities. The city has hired environmental consultants from Cambridge-based CDM Smith and transportation consultants from Stantec, with offices in the Bulfinch Triangle, who will deliver reports on likely casino impacts no later than March 26, she said.
That is also the date public comments are due to the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency on Suffolk Downs’ environmental impact filing. MEPA will host a public meeting on the filing at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 6, at Suffolk Downs.
When residents expressed concern that releasing environmental and transportation reports on or near the comment deadline would give them no time to review those reports, Dello Russo said she would try to have the reports issued earlier.
She said the advisory committee and Suffolk Downs should have a mitigation agreement signed sometime in the spring. Then votes will be held in East Boston and Revere within 60 – 90 days.
After that, Dello Russo said, the Gaming Commission will require submission of final casino applications sometime between October and December and will issue casino licenses no later than Feb. 26, 2014.
Celeste Myers, co-chair of No Eastie Casino, said the community needs details about the 4,000 jobs casino proponents have said it will create and answers to other questions they began asking months ago. She suggested casino proponents and the city were stalling to avoid answering questions.
City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, a lifelong East Boston resident, asked his neighbors to be patient while the process moves forward.
“I’m looking at this as a big development project in my neighborhood,” he said, “and like any project in the city, we have to go through a process.”
LaMattina has taken no public position on the casino proposal, saying he will wait until he sees what the mitigation agreement offers for East Boston.
Later, Myers and LaMattina had a heated exchange that lasted several minutes. Myers said many had lost confidence in the process because they were still waiting after months of asking the same questions.
Because Mayor Thomas M. Menino gave his support to the casino without getting all the necessary information, Myers said, the process is moving toward a vote that will likely come while residents still wait for answers.
Myers said casino opponents have no advocates in government because Menino and both state legislators representing East Boston support it and the advisory committee is charged not with evaluating whether the casino is good for East Boston but with negotiating the best deal.
“We’re the last line of defense,” Myers said of neighborhood residents. “There is no reason for any city in the Commonwealth to be the home of a casino.”
LaMattina said he, too, had questions about casino impacts, and he would work to ensure transparency. But many in East Boston are in desperate need of jobs the casino could bring, he said, and he will wait to make up his mind until he has more information.
The data isn’t available yet, he said, but it will be put before the community in time for residents to make an informed choice in the voting booth.
“If this isn’t right for East Boston, I’m saying no, too,” he said.
Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com