EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 18, 2013

Cashing in

Economics play a big hand in casino vote

By Dustin Luca
dluca@eagletribune.com

---- — On the eve of a critical casino vote this week in Tewksbury, the lines have been clearly drawn.

On one side are those touting a boost to the local economy with the promise of an influx of jobs and revenue being brought to the region.

On the other is the increase in traffic and crime and the threat to quality of life and the well-being of the financially insecure that some believe are at stake.

Residents of the Merrimack Valley, this is the crux of the state’s Expanded Gaming Act as it prepares to play out on the Tewksbury-Andover line.

Since Penn National Gaming proposed its $200 million, 1,250-machine slots casino a little more than a month ago, the area’s state and local officials, residents and organizations have been scrambling to learn more about the proposal and its potential impact on the region.

Two questions have most dominated discussions: Why here and why so fast?

But with an Oct. 4 deadline looming for Penn to file its completed application for Merrimack Valley Casino to the state Massachusetts Gaming Commission for the one available slots license in the state, there’s no time for delay.

The first step in delivering a casino to the Merrimack Valley — a rezoning proposal for a 30-acre site on Ames Pond Drive — goes before Tewksbury residents at a special Town Meeting Tuesday night.

“(We’re) holding our breath, just waiting to see what happens on the 20th,” Dennis DiZoglio, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, said last week.

The vote Tuesday “will be some kind of green light, in some fashion — or a red light, if the vote goes that way,” he said.

‘Destination’ uncertain

While several area business groups have elected to steer clear of the casino debate, one regional association believes the economic value is worth considering.

“Certainly, there will be some (negative) impact, but there will be such a tremendous economic impact to the area with the jobs that will come forth, with the infrastructure improvements that are planned, as well as the mitigation and additional transit options,” Andrea Leary, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Transportation Management Association, said.

“It’s definitely going to be an economic boom for the area, and it will be a destination location.”

But state Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Andover), whose district includes Tewksbury and Andover, argued that the Merrimack Valley Casino “is not a destination casino, which means the majority of those who will use it will be local residents.”

“So, we must ask ourselves, where will all of this money be coming from?” he said.

Rafael Abislaiman, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Workforce Investment Board, agreed. He said there will be a boost in jobs, but those voting on the proposal should follow the money.

“Let’s face it. What it produces is gambling and more people are going to lose than win,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s going to be a net gain, but there’s definitely going to be an income redistribution from the losers to the casinos and their employees.”

State Rep. Jim Lyons (R-Andover) also registered his opposition to the plan, saying the casino bid is “a fundamental argument of fairness” to the region’s residents, particularly those who may soon neighbor it.

“The people invested in their homes and neighborhoods, and built their lives, in that area,” Lyons said. “The last thing they thought was going to come into that neighborhood was a slots parlor.”

Several area business groups have avoided weighing in on the proposal. Joe Bevilacqua, CEO of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, said his organization elected not to take a position on the Penn National’s plan or casinos in general. Repeated calls to the Greater Haverhill and Greater Lowell chambers of commerce, Andover’s Economic Development Council and the Andover Business Community Association were not returned.

The Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, meanwhile, has partnered with Penn in building “a comprehensive marketing campaign to draw visitors to the Merrimack Valley region” if the casino moves forward.

“We have been impressed by Penn National and their vision for growing the tourism industry in the Merrimack Valley,” Deb Belanger, executive director of the bureau, said. “We are looking forward to working with them, and are excited about what this could mean for our industry.”

A question of value

While a casino might be good for tourism, it’s being viewed with trepidation by nearby property owners to the proposed site who are concerned about the values of their homes.

Realtor Tom Carroll with Remax Partners in Andover said he has a potential buyer looking to upsize with the purchase of a house off Lowell Street in town, the main road between the twin highway interchanges with routes 93 and 495. But the deal is on hold until after Tuesday’s vote in Tewksbury.

“They’re concerned about the value and things that might impact their value,” said Carroll, adding the potential increase in traffic on the already busy main road is also a major factor driving the buyers’ decision.

While abutters on the Andover side of the casino site — such as residents on Jordyn Lane — haven’t had a say yet, their voices would be heard in the eventual permitting process if Penn succeeds in winning the state’s sole slots license.

“Our neighbors are important to us,” Jeff Morris, public affairs director for Penn, said. “Should we be fortunate enough to win this license, we’ll reach out directly to the folks who live on Jordyn Lane and do what we can to appease their concerns, and do what any good neighbor can do.”

Tewksbury’s three public safety unions — police, superior officers and firefighters — have lent their support to the casino after Penn National pledged to provide them with $900,000 in grants if the proposal advances. But emergency officials in Andover aren’t quite sure what to expect if a casino moves next door.

Andover Fire Chief Mike Mansfield has spent some time calling communities neighboring casinos, elsewhere to see how police and fire calls have been affected. The response has been mixed, from minimal to much greater impact, depending on demographics.

From July 2012 to this past June, Andover responded to 24 mutual aid calls in Tewksbury, Mansfield said, which is half the number it does in North Andover. Only seven mutual aid calls were made in Lawrence during the same period.

Mansfield said he is prepared to start commissioning studies and compiling more data if the casino proposal advances on Tuesday.

Andover police Commander Charles Heseltine, meanwhile, said his department’s initial concerns are with traffic, because everything else is “in the beginning planning phases.”

“We’re going to try to work with everybody and get the answers,” he said. “We don’t have all that yet.”

Tuesday’s special Town Meeting in Tewksbury starts at 7 p.m. at Tewksbury Memorial High School. A non-voter section will be available for non-residents.

For the latest updates on the casino proposal and how Tewksbury residents vote Tuesday night, follow @DustinLuca on Twitter.