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2d thoughts arise on urban casino

Some lawmakers who backed other gambling plans see risk

Governor Deval Patrick's proposal to license a casino in the Boston area is generating early concern among some local lawmakers who say an urban casino would magnify social ills associated with gambling and steal business from the city's vibrant tourist industry.

Even some lawmakers who have supported gambling in the past are expressing worries about a casino in a city location, a sign of the political challenges the governor faces.

"The lure of the revenue seems to be very attractive," said Senator Jack Hart, a South Boston Democrat who has favored expanded gambling but is undecided on Patrick's current proposal.

"But you balance that with the concern that you have for people on the lower end of the economic scale, and those social ills, particularly if they are located in the city, are something I would be very concerned about," Hart said.

Gambling-related problems are not the only cause of opposition within Boston.

Senator Anthony Petruccelli is an East Boston Democrat whose district includes both Suffolk Downs and Wonderland Park in Revere, two expected bidders for casino sites. He said he has a host of concerns over the size of developments being discussed.

He has supported locating slot machines at the racetracks in the past, but says current plans for resort-style casinos could create traffic problems, put a dense development near residential areas, and hurt restaurants and hotels.

"There's a significant uphill battle," he said. "It's not a layup."

Patrick detailed a plan last week to put casino licenses up for bid in three regions: Southeastern Massachusetts, Western Massachusetts, and what was described in the press release as metropolitan Boston. Patrick officials said yesterday they would be open to casinos from Boston to the New Hampshire border in the zone the administration has designated as metropolitan Boston. The administration is also taking pains to point out that it has no list of predetermined casino sites.

Responding to questions yesterday, the administration said it suggested metropolitan Boston as a strategic location because a casino there would capture visitors traveling south from Maine and New Hampshire. Officials also said it was a logical choice because Boston is a transportation hub and provides a tourist base that could be enticed to visit a casino. For those reasons, gambling industry analysts say that an urban casino would be positioned as the biggest potential money-maker for the state, which would receive 27 percent of gambling revenue under Patrick's plan.

In drafting their plans in recent weeks, administration officials also wanted to make sure that casinos are spread across the state to provide boosts in several regions.

"Our state economy is made up of several regional economies that must be supported," said press secretary Kyle Sullivan. "We must ensure that this level of economic and job creation is spread throughout the Commonwealth."

For Patrick's plan to move forward, it will have to receive approval by the Legislature, where the debate is getting underway even though the governor is not expected to file his bill until next month.

David Guarino, spokesman for House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, said last night that they did not expect the issue to come before the House for several months.

"Given that we don't have a bill yet, the speaker is surmising that it won't happen until 2008," Guarino said.

The administration has begun working to build support for the governor's destination resort casino proposal among House members, meeting initially with four committee chairmen, all Democrats: Peter Koutoujian of Newton; Rachel Kaprielian of Watertown; Vincent A. Pedone of Worcester; and Garrett J. Bradley of Hingham. According to administration officials involved in the lobbying effort, the four members are open to the idea of casinos in Massachusetts and could sway other members.

Patrick has said he expects three casinos in the state would produce 20,000 new jobs. He has not revealed how he arrived at the figures or how much of the projected $2 billion in economic activity is to come from a Boston area location, but many analysts agree that an urban casino would be the most lucrative, because of the large population base.

Some casino proponents have suggested that Suffolk Downs is in the best position for the Boston area license because the track's plans are the most advanced, they have the backing of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and a strong lobbying team.

Backers say casinos could help broaden the tourist base by creating a new draw for visitors and by providing a reason for convention-goers to stay an extra day.

"Talk about capturing people," said Representative Brian P. Wallace, a South Boston Democrat who supports the proposal. "We're not just capturing people from Southie and Eastie; we're capturing people flying in. They're six minutes from the door to Suffolk Downs. It's a whole tourist industry we'll be bringing in."

While urban casinos are relatively rare and there are few definitive figures on their impact, several studies have suggested that casinos in areas with a healthy tourist base don't increase revenues as dramatically and can hurt local businesses by drawing local residents to a casino hall instead.

"It would absolutely hurt the Boston restaurants," said Joseph Pignato, owner of Joseph's Winter Street Cafe in Newburyport and chairman of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, which is planning to oppose the plan. "With a casino . . . they're going to get free alcohol and free meals. That's going to suck out all the business around the casino."

Urban clergy and gambling foes also warn that a casino in Boston would be worse than one in rural areas, in large part because more people would be enticed to gamble. Studies have shown that the number of problem gamblers increases in proportion to the proximity of a casino.

"Just do the math, and the number of new addicted gamblers will be greater in an urban center," said Laura Everett, associate director of the Massachusetts Council on Churches, which is mobilizing against the proposal. "The governor keeps saying, 'It's a destination resort casino.' Well, if you live one MBTA stop over, it's not a destination, and you're not going to be using the hotel."

"I don't want Boston to become Atlantic City," said Representative Marie St. Fleur, a Democrat from Dorchester and vice chairwoman of the House Ways and Means committee. With a Boston area casino, "there is a difference and a more immediate negative impact on the businesses that currently exist."

St. Fleur, who has voted against gambling expansion in the past, said that so far she is undecided on the current proposal.

In a significant sign, Senate President Therese Murray, one of Patrick's key legislative allies, has also expressed skepticism about locating a casino in Boston.

"I think the western part of the state makes sense and the southeastern part of the state makes sense," she said in an interview last week with WCVB-TV. "If there is something metropolitan or north of Boston, show me."

Murray aides said she could help strike a middle ground between the governor and DiMasi, a North End Democrat who in the past has been opposed to expanded gaming. Murray has not resonded to repeated requests for interviews.

Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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