By Dustin Luca
---- — TEWKSBURY — The Board of Selectmen has sealed a deal with a Pennsylvania-based gaming company that represents the first step in bringing a $200 million casino to the Merrimack Valley.
The board last night unanimously approved a “host agreement” with Penn National Gaming that establishes ground rules for planning, voting on and possibly operating a slots-only casino on Ames Pond Drive off Lowell Street (Route 133) at the Andover town line. If approved, the casino would be built directly south of the juncture with Route 495.
The host agreement requires Penn National to protect Tewksbury and support it financially in several ways, according to its town manager, Richard Montuori. The town stands to profit by at least $4 million annually from the project, which includes property taxes and mitigation payments. The agreement also requires the company to donate to area nonprofits and tap the local labor market for the construction and eventual staffing of the casino.
The project, however, must gain the approval of a special Town Meeting in Tewksbury to rezone the 30-acre site to accommodate a casino and a town-wide election to allow gaming in town. The selectmen will meet Monday night to set the dates for both the town meeting and election.
If approvals are obtained locally, Penn National would then need to acquire the one available state license for a slots-only casino. At least four other projects are already seeking that license.
With the exception of studying traffic impacts, communities beyond Tewksbury were not considered as part of the host agreement, according to Montuori. The Tewksbury town manager said the host agreement to protect his town through the process had to come first, he said. Involving other communities that will potentially be affected by the gaming complex will begin next week, he added.
Tewksbury selectmen Chairman Scott Wilson said the project could be of great benefit to his town considering the amount of money it would bring in to help pay for local projects. He also said it offers a chance to revitalize the local economy at large.
“This won’t fix all our ills. I’m not peddling this as a cure-all,” Wilson said. “I think about the construction, using local guys and getting them back to work. It’s a great way to stimulate other parts of our economy.”
Wilson said a casino in Tewksbury would also stand to boost the local economy in neighboring communities.
“There are places that could see an influx of people, but we have to do the project right,” he said.
Though the process has only started, the proposal is already raising concerns in Andover. Alex Vispoli, chairman of the Andover selectmen, said residents in his town have spoken up against the proposal. Wilson also said he has also heard from Andover residents.
“We have talked to a lot of residents in Andover. They have become pretty active in the discussion,” he said. “Until we approved this, Penn National couldn’t talk mitigation with the surrounding communities.”
But Wilson said judging by the relationships Penn National has fostered elsewhere, he said the company has done “a great job partnering with other communities.”
For more on Penn National’s proposal for Tewksbury and how it could affect Andover, see next week’s Andover Townsman, www.andovertownsman.com.