Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

July 25, 2013

High-stakes battle brewing; Border casino proposal raising quick concerns

Border casino proposal raising quick concerns

By Dustin Luca
dluca@andovertownsman.com

---- — Could Route 133 support a 24-hour, slots-only casino?

A gaming company from Pennsylvania believes so, and it is working hard to get a green light for a venture on Ames Pond Drive in Tewksbury, just through the woods from a few dozen Andover homes on the west side of town.

Penn National Gaming, a company with 28 gaming- and racing-related facilities nationwide, is proposing to develop a $200 million venture on a 30-acre site on the Tewksbury-Andover town line, just south of Route 133’s interchange with Route 495.

Its proposal for Hollywood Casino Tewksbury would bring 1,250 slot machines and more than 500 permanent jobs to the area.

Tewksbury stands to receive at least $4 million in revenue annually for hosting the development, according to the gaming company.

The proposal now goes before the residents of Tewksbury, where it will be put to Special Town Meeting and townwide votes in the next two months in advance of the state’s Oct. 4 filing deadline for slot casino proposals.

If approved at the local level, Hollywood Casino Tewksbury would face competition from at least four other proposals for the state’s one available slots-only license allowed under recent gaming legislation.

The prospect of a neighboring casino has raised concerns in Andover, with residents and officials alike wondering what the proposal holds in store for their town.

Several local and state officials, including selectmen Chairman Alex Vispoli and state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, have already stepped forward to denounce the idea.

“I’d never vote for it. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the community,” Selectman Mary Lyman agreed.

Former state Rep. and Sen. Susan Tucker of Andover said every public official and business person in the region “should be speaking out against this misguided proposal.”

“Slots are a drag on the regional economy,” she said. When residents are dumping their money on slots, they’re not spending it in local restaurants, or buying a new car, or on education, for a reason.”

Tucker believes Penn National’s proposal will not get past next month’s Special Town Meeting in Tewksbury, where a two-thirds majority is needed to amend zoning for the project.

Penn National Gaming is “just sniffing out places that might be stupid enough to welcome them, and I do hope Tewksbury isn’t one of those places,” Tucker said. “I have every reason to believe it won’t be.”

Betting on Tewksbury

Tewksbury officials were first approached by Penn National Gaming on Friday, July 5, at which point they started working on a “host agreement,” according to Tewksbury Town Manager Richard Montuori. A week later, they reached out to Andover Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski.

That host agreement, approved by the Tewksbury Board of Selectmen last Thursday, July 18, establishes a series of controls on the project and how it will benefit, as well as protect, their town.

The agreement moves the process forward to town residents, said Tewksbury selectmen Chairman Scott Wilson, who is now hoping for “an open-format dialogue with the community” on the proposal.

Wilson believes a casino off Route 133 would have wide-reaching, positive economic impacts.

“There are places that could see an influx of people, but we have to do the project right,” he said. “It’s $5 million coming into the town one way or another, and that doesn’t capture the ancillary costs of people coming into this community.”

But Wilson acknowledged it’s “a big change.”

“Change can be scary for people,” he said. “We have time to educate them and all we ask, in the end, is for them to make an educated decision.”

The proposal is already facing opposition in Tewksbury, where residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed site are vowing to fight its approval. No Slots Tewksbury, a townwide organization of residents seeking to maintain the quality of lives and local businesses in Tewksbury, has launched a campaign and has more than 300 “likes” on Facebook.

Eric Schippers, senior vice president of public affairs for Penn National, said the end goal for his company is to have the support of the host community if and when the steel hits the ground. Therefore, becoming an asset to a community is the company’s primary goal in the planning stages, he said.

“We view this as a partnership with a community, so one of the things we’re doing in addition to our education efforts is trying to address concerns,” he said.

“But, ultimately, we’re seeking a partner with this as well, and the state’s interest is in awarding this to a community that values this type of project.”

AT A GLANCE

Hollywood Casino Tewksbury

WHAT IS IT: A $200 million, slots-only parlor with 1,250 machines, supported by amenities like restaurants, entertainment and a hotel. It is proposed by Penn National Gaming, based in Pennsylvania.

WHERE WILL IT GO: If approved, the facility would be built at 300 Ames Pond Drive, a 30-acre lot off Route 133 in Tewksbury, just south of the Route 495 interchange on the Andover town line.

WHEN WILL IT BE VOTED: Two votes face the project in Tewksbury. A Special Town Meeting to rezone the land, requiring a two-thirds vote, will be held Aug. 20. A townwide ballot vote to approve the casino is set for Sept. 21.

WHO ELSE WANTS A LICENSE: Under new state gaming laws, only one slots-only license is up for grabs. Penn National is one of five companies trying to get through the door. The other four proposals are Rush Street Gaming in Millbury, Cordish Companies in Leominster, Raynham Park in Raynham and Plain Ridge Race Course in Plainville.