Even though East Boston residents voted down the proposed resort-style casino at Suffolk Downs in November, the issue is still fresh on a lot of residents’ minds here. Suffolk Downs has moved the proposal over to the Revere side of the property, cut a new Host Community Agreement with city officials there, and was given the green light by the Mass Gaming Commission to proceed.
This week, the East Boston Times sat down with Suffolk Downs COO Chip Tuttle and asked him some of the questions that seem to be on the mind of Eastie residents.
East Boston Times: A majority of voters in East Boston voted ‘no’ on November 5. Residents’ concerns then were what they are now for the most part, i.e. increased traffic, crime and gambling addiction. How do you plan to address these continued concerns here with a development in Revere?
Chip Tuttle: East Boston voters voted no for a development in East Boston. Now that the development is situated entirely in Revere with our new partners from Mohegan Sun, we still plan to mitigate traffic issues on East Boston roads, keep resort visitors on the major highways and off neighborhood streets, to provide a safe environment for visitors and neighbors alike and to enhance public safety resources in East Boston. We look forward to working with Mayor Walsh on a surrounding community agreement. While we were not successful in the November ballot question here, if we are successful in going forward in Revere, we want to be sure our neighbors in East Boston benefit from the development – jobs, partnership programs for small businesses, investment in the community.
EBT: What do you think happened in the East Boston ballot question? Why weren’t you successful?
CT: Like anything, you can look back and cite a variety of factors. Losing Caesars as our gaming partner just prior to the vote and not having a new partner certainly didn’t help. If you were on the fence, that gave you a reason to vote no. I’m not sure we did a satisfactory job explaining the benefits of the host community agreement and even then there were concerns that Eastie wouldn’t see those benefits, that somehow they’d disappear on the other side of the tunnel. We could have done a better job explaining the alternatives. A lot of people have told me that they didn’t realize that moving the development to the Revere side of the property was an option. We were always careful not to appear threatening, but that’s an area where we could have done a better job. At this point, we’ve got to look forward, though. East Boston has been our neighbor and partner for 78 years. It’s time to move on.
EBT: When East Boston was considered a Host Community it was looking at $10-$20 million a year. If Boston is designated a surrounding community will the money East Boston sees be significantly less?
CT: In the prior iteration of our development, there was $1 billion in development on the Boston side of the property and a big part of our agreement was the implied property tax on that development. Even with that development now in Revere, we look forward to working with Mayor Walsh and his team on an agreement that brings significant benefit to the East Boston neighborhood. It is really up to the neighborhood and Mayor Walsh to decide what’s important in terms of how the funds from a surrounding community agreement are allocated and what are the priorities for the neighborhood.
EBT: Is Mohegan/Suffolk Downs still required to build a Boardman Street flyover? If so when would it be completed?
CT: We worked for five years on the flyover concept for Boardman Street and East Boston voters didn’t approve the project. In some ways, it may be time to hit the reset button on what we thought local residents want. We still think a flyover works as a solution to both existing conditions at the Boardman Street intersection and to mitigate resort visitation during peak times. We’ve studied it closely and we’re in active conversations on planning with MassDOT. We have three flyover options and one at-grade solution that widens 1A in both directions from two lanes to three lanes from Revere to beyond Boardman Street. Mohegan Sun is committed to funding improvements that address the additional volumes, improve peak commuting conditions and work for the neighborhood.
EBT: If the entrance off McClellan Highway is still an access point to the casino is it considered an amenity? Would that make Boston a Host Community? If not why?
CT: We have leased 42 acres, all in Revere, to Mohegan Sun Massachusetts for its development. In the new configuration, the Mohegan Sun resort has three entrances in Revere. The main entrance on Route 1A has moved from Tomasello Drive (Suffolk Downs’ main entrance) to Furlong Drive (also known as Diner Road), which will be improved substantially, will be where the signage for the resort is and may be renamed Mohegan Sun Way. There is still a secondary vehicle access off Winthrop Avenue. And there is a pedestrian entrance at the northeast corner of the property for employees and for visitors who arrive via the Blue Line at Beachmont Station, which has the advantage of being far closer to the facility than Suffolk Downs station was in the prior plan. Tomasello Drive is a private way that we have an obligation to keep open for the racetrack and for access to the shopping plaza where Target and Stop and Shop are located. Keeping that road open for track access and public safety doesn’t make Boston a host community. If Tomasello Drive were the only way to access the property, maybe you could take a different point of view, but it’s clearly not.
EBT: What are the plans for Suffolk Downs Racetrack? Will it continue to be an unkempt property or will there be significant improvements to the racetrack and surrounding grounds (i.e. parking lot, landscaping, greenery)?
CT: If Mohegan Sun is successful in earning a license and developing on the Revere portion of the property, we have promised to keep the track operating through at least the initial 15-year period of the gaming license award — we hope longer. We want to enhance the track property and the grounds and look forward to working with the Mayor and our neighbors on how we do that. I’m sure that this — improving the Boston side of the property — will be part of our conversation with the Mayor on a surrounding community agreement.
EBT: There are some rumors that the horse barns that are on the Revere side of the track now would be moved over to the East Boston side near residential homes. Is this true? If not where would the horse barns most likely end up?
CT: The 42 acres that we have leased to Mohegan Sun includes the barn area, so, in order to continue our 78-year tradition of racing here, we have to replace the barns and other facilities. We have two options for that. The first is onsite on the Boston side of the property, renovating the northern portion of the existing grandstand to house as many as 750 horses within the existing footprint of the grandstand and building 2-3 more barns between the grandstand and the Revere side of the property. This would keep that activity away from our closest neighbors on Waldemar Avenue. Those neighbors have said it is important to them to keep the track. They enjoy the view and the open space.
The second option is to stable and train the horses off-site and then ship them in for raceday. This is done in other parts of the country. We have a few options for that within a reasonable distance from the track. At first analysis, the costs are relatively similar, but we have some work to do and we want to be sure that our neighbors understand the options.
EBT: In the previous Host Community agreement with Revere there was room for expansion into Revere at a time when a majority of the development was in East Boston. Is there any plan to expand into East Boston through a new referendum and Host Community Agreement in the future?
CT: Not right now. The result of the East Boston ballot question means that no gaming development can happen in East Boston. If there were a time in the future when you could envision that — and I can’t see it happening any time soon — it would require a new agreement and a new ballot question. For now and the foreseeable future, we and Mohegan Sun are focused on Revere. There is plenty of room on the Revere side of the property for a world-class resort development. The parcel we have leased Mohegan Sun in Revere is larger than both the Wynn property in Everett and the MGM property in Springfield.
EBT: If Mohegan/Suffolk is not granted a license what are the plans for the property?
CT: The racing operation is no longer sustainable as currently constituted. The track hasn’t been profitable since 2007 and without the benefit of expanded gaming on the Revere portion of the property, the revenue from leasing the property and the visitors to the area that the resort would bring; it is very unlikely we would be able to continue to race. One option is a more traditional mixed use development with housing, retail and office space. Another is airport-related, light industrial. Maybe a mix of both. Right now we feel very good about the strength of Mohegan Sun’s application and we’re hopeful that’s the path we take.