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The fight against a casino begins in earnest

December 6, 2011

There are only three things in Walpole that seem to be certain these days: death, taxes, and controversial developments.

Since the 1980s, a host of developers and other groups have proposed a wide range of controversial projects in Walpole that have each been ultimately abandoned amid strong opposition from town residents. Citizens have fought valiant and successful efforts to avoid two different power plants, a Massachusetts Water Resources Authority sludge landfill, a million-gallon propane farm, grinding of asbestos shingles at a landfill, a regional trash transfer station, and a co-generator facility.

For many Walpole residents, protesting bad business has become second-nature, thanks to years of experience. One might think controversial businesses would learn to stop coming to Walpole, given the undefeated record Walpole residents have against developers they don’t like.

But now it’s time for Walpoleans to get the pitchforks out again. Robert Kraft, owner of the wildly successful New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, and the Patriot Place entertainment and shopping complex, is in talks with Las Vegas-based casino developer Steve Wynn to potentially situate a casino across from Patriot Place on Route 1 in Foxborough along the South Walpole border. At the same time, the MBTA is exploring the implementation of full-time commuter rail service, through quiet residential Walpole neighborhoods, to the Foxborough site.

It might be easy to cast off the casino and MBTA expansion as purely a South Walpole and Foxborough problem. But this is far from a N.I.M.B.Y. (Not In My Back Yard) issue – every resident of Walpole has reason to be concerned about the proposed developments, and in fact residents of the area at large and state taxpayers should be concerned about the potential impact on their tax dollars. There is no question that the new train line and casino will put an added burden on town and state budgets, while billionaires stand to gain significant profit.

Regardless of the impact on neighborhoods, the MBTA expansion proposal doesn’t make sense financially and could affect Walpole’s budget, and the state budget, down the road. In a feasibility study about the project last year, the MBTA suggested that implementing full-time rail service would cost anywhere from $50 million to $100 million in initial capital and infrastructure costs alone.

According to MassINC, a non-partisan Boston-based think tank, the MBTA currently has the largest debt burden of any transit system in the country. The MBTA budget deficit is expected to climb to $161 million in 2012 and skyrocket to $330 million by 2016. Experts say fare increases and service cuts will do little to reduce the agency’s debt obligations, and MassINC believes the MBTA will inevitably need an infusion of new revenue, probably in the form of substantial state tax increases. Even with record ridership this year, the MBTA has struggled to pay its bills, and has a deplorable record when it comes to maintaining its existing infrastructure. Commuter trains, buses, and subways are regularly late and schedules are unpredictable.

A public transportation agency so desperate for cash that it wanted to sell off naming rights for some of its stations earlier this year should be trying to reduce its debt, not add to it. It is laudable that the MBTA is trying to save money by reusing existing CSX freight train tracks through Walpole that are seen as underutilized. But the upfront cost of modifying those tracks for MBTA use and the annual expense of running trains on them, which the MBTA suggested in their study would be an annual financial loss, makes the project financially unreasonable. While the trains may help generate economic development and new jobs at the Foxborough site, the one person who stands to gain the most from such a massive expenditure of tax dollars is Kraft. It’s not fair to taxpayers for one person to gain so much from a public agency.

State officials and the MBTA have a historically bad track record of anticipating the full extent of costs for transportation projects, and the MBTA’s overly optimistic estimates of revenue from fares on the new line are based on pure speculation of potential ridership. When the MBTA spent over half a billion dollars to complete the Greenbush commuter rail line a few years ago, the cost was much higher than original estimates, and ridership numbers ended up being far lower than had been predicted. In fact, many of the passengers on the line had simply switched from other existing MBTA services “with no new benefit to the MBTA’s strained finances or to the environment,” according to The Boston Globe.

The increased debt burden brought on by the train expansion to Foxborough is also likely to manifest itself into even more financial headaches for Walpole taxpayers down the road. The MBTA already charges the town a yearly assessment of almost $500,000 for its existing service to Walpole. That amount that could increase if the Foxborough line comes to fruition, since most of the tracks for the new service are within Walpole.

More unfortunate, however, is the prospect of even more taxes for Walpole and state residents to pay for the increased debt brought on by this project. A few months ago, MassINC released a report that suggested the MBTA might be able to pay off its debt by imposing regional payroll taxes in areas that are directly serviced by the MBTA, or by increasing the state’s gas tax. If a regional tax was implemented, Walpole taxpayers would be saddled with paying the bills for a train line they didn’t want in the first place and don’t directly benefit from.

If the gas tax is raised, every state motorist would pay for a project that is primarily benefiting Kraft and his billion-dollar enterprise.

Residents are also extremely concerned about the potential for more traffic caused by whatever use ends up being built at the Kraft property. But if the whole point of the MBTA expansion was to reduce traffic congestion, it’s not clear that this goal can be accomplished. As it is, the special event trains that run to Gillette during game days do very little to alleviate the significant traffic on game days, so there’s no evidence full-time service would produce any different result. A casino has the potential to attract busloads and carloads of people from all over the region, especially because the state is only allowing three in the state. These gamblers might travel by train, but the proximity to Route 95 and the great distances they will be traveling makes it far more likely they will come by car, making the hoped-for result of the MBTA expansion highly questionable.

The casino, too, will have a serious negative financial impact on Walpole. While Foxborough residents would stand to gain from the project through tax revenue, the state’s landmark casino law, passed by legislators and signed by the governor a month ago, doesn’t require surrounding towns to receive any compensation. But its close proximity to the Walpole town line means Walpole will see most of the casino’s side effects, including increased crime.

The state gaming law includes a controversial measure allowing casinos to hand out free alcoholic beverages. Because the Foxborough casino would be open for most of the day all year-round, the prospect of free alcohol poses a grave threat to every Walpole resident and motorists at all hours of the day. A 2010 study by the Journal of Health Economics, a peer-reviewed academic journal for the human health care and medicine field, found that “there is a strong link between the presence of a casino in a county and the number of alcohol-related fatal traffic accidents.” With Walpole gaining no tax revenue from the project to beef up its police force, there is obvious call for alarm.

There is also very strong evidence, gathered from years of studies, that casinos increase crime in communities where they are situated. Since the casino would be located just a few feet away from the Walpole town line, and in fact Walpole residents are closer to the casino than Foxborough residents are, this is a very serious concern. In 2000, University of Georgia Economist David Mustard and Baylor University’s Earl Grilnols analyzed crime rates from all counties in the United States between 1977 and 1996 and compared those numbers to crime rates within casino communities. According to their review, “casinos increased crime after a lag of 3 to 4 years,” and by a substantial amount. The study estimated that the cost of crime caused by casinos totals to about $65 per adult per year in the surrounding area, a cost that would have a serious burden on the Walpole municipal budget with no added tax revenue.

(More statistics and data about casinos and their effects on communities to be posted on 180 later this week.)

It’s worth noting that Wynn, in contrast to most casino developers, has a good reputation in the industry. Kraft could very easily be working with more controversial casino developers like Sheldon Adelson or Donald Trump. Wynn’s resort casinos are more upscale than many others, and he has suggested the Foxborough casino would be located further back from the street and would blend in with its environment. Wynn is credited with helping to transform the Las Vegas Strip and getting rid of a lot of sleaze and seediness there. It’s not likely that if he built a casino in Foxborough, Walpole residents would start to see prostitutes hanging out on street corners, and strip clubs popping up along Route 1.

That said, Wynn has been known to build gambling establishments and then sell them off, which creates the possibility that a more disreputable casino operator may run this someday. Years from now, Kraft might also consider outright selling the land to Wynn or another casino operator, rather than leasing it as he supposedly plans to do initially. The NFL currently has restrictions on its owners having a significant role in gambling operations, and if those rules become even stricter in the future, Kraft may have no choice but to sell it. The new owner could do whatever he wanted with the property, including making it more seamy than Wynn or Kraft would have wanted.

All public statements from the Kraft group have indicated that both Wynn and Kraft are willing to listen to residents and might pull out if there is overwhelming opposition. It doesn’t seem that the pair have any intention of ramming the project down residents’ throats, and there don’t seem to be any formal plans in place for a casino beyond just preliminary discussions. Wynn deserves an opportunity to present his proposal to residents and to public officials in Foxborough and all surrounding towns. Unfortunately, both are already causing criticism for meeting behind closed doors with Foxborough officials and residents, and for the perception that Kraft is not being open about the process. Also, Wynn’s arrogant comments yesterday in The Boston Herald suggesting that protesters to the casino were “professionals” from competing casino operators and generally indicating he didn’t believe residents were genuinely protesting, are unhelpful to the process.

While some South Walpole residents would probably be just fine if no new development came to the Kraft property across from Gillette Stadium, Kraft doesn’t seem interested in letting the property remain vacant with parking lots. He has publicly stated that he was interested in putting an office park there, but the poor economy seems to have squashed that vision.

But Kraft told the Globe recently that he’s also not interested in making massive profits at this later stage in his career. “The most important thing to me at this point in my life are legacy projects,” he told reporters. So if he truly isn’t looking for big wads of cash, he might want to consider turning the land into a solar farm, and partnering with power utilities to become a pioneer in alternative energy.

Additionally, although Kraft said he doesn’t believe an office park is feasible in the current economic climate, he might be vastly underestimating his own influence and power. He is considered to be one of the most powerful and well-known businessmen in Massachusetts and perhaps even in the entire New England region, and it didn’t take him very long to attract a number of renowned, high-quality businesses to move into his shopping complex at Patriot Place.

If there is anybody who can attract a large corporation to Foxborough, it would be him. Even in this economy, there are probably at least a few large corporations that would like a good location to move their corporate headquarters to, and Foxborough’s convenient location to Route 95 and the rest of the amenities of Greater Boston might be an excellent choice. While the state’s business climate may not be considered one of the best in the nation, Kraft has an extraordinary amount of sway on Beacon Hill that could help him garner lucrative tax breaks for a company that wanted to move on to the empty land. An office park with many tenants might not be possible, but Kraft is probably one of the few businessmen in the state who truly could lure one big corporation here.

Even with all of the negative social effects, there is no doubt that casinos can generate a substantial number of new jobs, albeit low-paid ones. But there are already several other communities throughout the state that have publicly said they would welcome casinos within their city limits or are at least more open to them. Putting a casino in Foxborough, where resident opposition is so strong, doesn’t seem reasonable. Unlike other gaming locations proposed around the state, this site is very close to residential neighborhoods.

If Kraft wants to leave a legacy in the area, he should want to be remembered as a compassionate leader who transformed one of the smallest and most antiquated stadiums in the NFL, the old Foxborough Stadium, into a booming and bustling business complex with a successful and popular sports franchise. After such a successful career, he doesn’t want to establish a reputation for being a greedy billionaire who ignored residents and put profits over people to put a casino on his land.

Once a casino is built in Foxborough, it can’t be taken back. Walpole and surrounding towns will be impacted forever, and it is likely that many residents will leave the area altogether or not move there in the first place. South Walpole has the potential to become a desolate wasteland of low property values and deserted neighborhoods, formerly quiet and pleasant, that are subjected to loud noises and bright flashing lights 24 hours a day from a nearby casino.

But just like all of the previous projects that Walpole residents have fought off, from power plants to sludge dumps, Kraft and Wynn, along with many public officials, should be prepared to hear from plenty of angry and passionate Walpole residents over the next few months or years, who won’t let their neighborhood be destroyed and who won’t give up their fight. The battle has only just begun.

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