Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

July 25, 2013

Town must be proactive on casino proposal

The Andover Townsman

---- — News of a 1,250-slots casino proposed for just over the town line off Route 133 in Tewksbury took many people by surprise last week.

Indeed, few have entertained the notion of gambling as an option in the local area — preferring to imagine casinos sprouting up in places like Springfield, Foxboro, East Boston and Raynham.

The suburbs north of Boston seem like such an unlikely choice for a casino that some even questioned whether talk of a $200 million gambling and entertainment complex eyeing Tewksbury was even real.

But make no mistake, it’s real and it appears to have quickly won the support of Tewksbury town leaders who see the project as a way to revitalize their local economy.

And who could blame them. Penn National Gaming, the Pennsylvania-based outfit that is banking its casino hopes on Tewksbury, has waved a carrot in front of the town that’s hard to resist. Penn is promising Tewksbury at least $4 million annually in revenue for hosting its casino, not to mention the creation of hundreds of jobs, influx of thousands of people with money to spend and mitigation of any issues its arrival may cause.

The Hollywood Casino Tewksbury proposal — targeted for a 30-acre site on Ames Pond Road just south of the Route 495 interchange on the Andover line — still has a long road to go before it can even think about hitting the jackpot. Tewksbury must first adopt a zoning change for the site by a two-thirds majority at Town Meeting next month. Then, voters must approve a ballot question in September allowing a casino to open in town.

From there, Penn National would have to beat out at least four other companies for the state’s one available slots license.

But Penn National is not new to the gambling game. The company has 28 gaming- and racing-related facilities nationwide. No doubt its representatives didn’t pick Tewksbury on a whim.

While Tewksbury wasn’t the company’s first choice for a site to expand its reach into Massachusetts — Springfield turned the group down in favor of pursuing an agreement with rival MGM Resorts — Penn must see some real potential in the Route 495 corridor. The outfit wouldn’t be wasting considerable time and money on the prospect otherwise.

Where does Andover stand in all this? Town officials are still trying to figure that out. While Tewksbury has the ultimate say on approval, Andover can’t just sit back and watch the cherries on the slots land where they may.

For starters, Andover officials must win designation as a surrounding community so it can be guaranteed a voice in the discussions. And they have to be proactive in learning all they can about the potential such a massive development would have on the town.

Selectmen Chairman Alex Vispoli has taken a leadership role in the process thus far. He attended selectmen’s meetings in Tewksbury last week during which officials signed a host agreement with Penn National, advancing the proposal onto voters. He was joined at one of the meetings by Selectman Dan Kowalski.

But Vispoli and Kowalski shouldn’t lead the charge alone. They should be joined by town officials, public safety leaders and other residents from all sectors in becoming fully educated about all that’s at stake.

True, there are a fair number in town who oppose the idea of a casino in any form. Others might be willing to entertain the notion — with the right safeguards and assurances. While it might be too soon to say whether an all-out fight against Penn National must be waged, one thing is certain. The town must take an active role in the process so a neighboring community doesn’t cash in — leaving Andover to pay the price.