Friday, June 29, 2007

A Good Bet

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chief Glenn Marshall wants gamblers to risk their hard earned dollars at his proposed casino. He wants the residents of Middleboro to risk their town’s future, quality of life and safety in return for a bigger town budget. He wants the Bay State to risk opening a Pandora’s box by approving class 3 gambling. And yet, he’s hardly willing to throw a few chips of his own on the table. In fact, in light of what he’s asking of everyone else, it would appear that Mr. Marshall is downright risk-averse.

That’s because he’d prefer to follow the same old tried and true Indian-Casino-in-the-Woods model that has worked so well down in Connecticut, than to take a chance on an untried and untested New England style Casino-by-the-Sea in New Bedford.

But he should. As more and more gambling facilities pop up in our region, they’ll eventually find themselves competing on their ability to provide something unique.

Imagine this: Instead of driving to yet another Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun, you and your expendable income could motor down the coast for an exciting seaside adventure in an historic city perched on the edge of an economic upswing. Moonlight cruises would transport visitors from Boston and Plymouth and Newport to a New Bedford casino resort for an evening of dining, dancing, shopping and gambling. Romantic strolls would take place along an antique brick shore-walk.

And the opportunities for dining would tantalize even-non gamblers to line up for a meal and a few games of chance. A casino in New Bedford could boast honestly of it’s fresh Seafood. And I’d bet that Emeril Lagasse himself would be delighted to locate one of his world class restaurants in one of the very hubs of Portuguese-American cuisine.

With all the things worth experiencing in a renewed New Bedford waterfront, tourists will be lured away from the insanely expensive ocean-front hotels in Boston to spend their vacations at a resort casino the Whaling City.

The breeze off the ocean. Boats bobbing in the harbor. Old fashioned glass lanterns illuminating the sidewalks at night. Imagine.

Or… they could trudge to Middleboro for swamps, box turtles and cranberry bogs.

Though Mr. Marshall would be taking a risk by straying from the established casino-in-the-woods model, it wouldn’t be a very big one - because it makes better business sense to locate in New Bedford.

For one thing, his casino is welcome there. City government and business interests would be more willing to make concessions down the road. And it’s already an urban environment. Infrastructure and an ample labor force are already readily available. And $30 million to modify an interchange beats $300,000 million to rework Routes 495 and 44 any day. And those are just the initial figures. In Massachusetts, we are all well acquainted with what a bottomless money pit extensive road construction can become.

The Pequot’s in Connecticut had to build their casinos in the woods because they had to locate them on their reservations. But the Mashpee Wampanoag’s are blessed with a choice.

So take the chance, Mr. Marshall. Make it happen.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Marsha, Marsha, Marsha...

The great thing about having gone to all the meetings regarding a casino down in Middleboro, is that it gives me some perspective. For instance, I was there at that first meeting after the land sale when Middleboro Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Marsha Burnell announced that she’d welcome questions and comments from those in attendance. I marveled at the democracy in action as people stood and waited in a terribly long, slow moving line, respectfully waiting for their turn to speak. But I was thankful that they did because I learned a lot. Even from the opposition.

That first meeting went late, but I didn’t mind. Though I have other things I’d rather be doing on a hot summer night than sitting on a folding chair in an unairconditioned town hall, it seemed a miniscule price to pay for trying to preserve the quality of life for myself and my family.

But in subsequent meetings, Ms. Brunelle just seemed to get more and more crankier at all the time all these questions and comments were chewing up. She was a volunteer, after all, and we were on her time.

Now, I try to believe the best in people, I really do, until they give me ample reason not to. And so I figured Ms. Brunelle was probably a nice lady, I mean, there was one sweltering evening, shortly before a meeting upstairs in the Middleboro town hall, when she turned to me and another woman in attendance and let us know that there was a soda machine down in the lobby. And, I thought that was fairly gracious of her. But then, at the same meeting, I watched as Ms. Brunelle allowed an elderly Wampanoag woman to stand for twenty minutes at the microphone before acknowledging her. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. I grew up in an era when men still gave up their seat on the subway to pregnant women. But apparently the board of selectmen are happy to accept the Wampanoag’s $7 million tribute for polluting it’s town, but unflinching when allowing one of them a simple courtesy.

At the most recent selectmen’s meeting, Ms. Brunelle, evidently weary of how the democratic process conflicted with her Monday evenings, told us that she’d actually gone to the trouble of checking the laws regarding selectmen’s meetings - which revealed that the law does not require that people be allowed to speak or make comments. And furthermore, she is hereby putting the kibosh on any further public commentary regarding the casino issue.

Which is a shame. Because speaking up in your town hall is one of the few places let in America where a plain old ordinary American can still be heard.

It’s certainly not true at the state and federal level. In the past few weeks I’ve written to every state and federal representative I have, and a few I don’t, and the only response I got back was a form letter from Ted Kennedy’s office thanking me for my interest in immigration reform. Huh?

And the silent treatment is spreading. In my town, Bridgewater, the night after the meeting in Middleboro, selectman Mark Oliari who, incidently, is Bridgewater's official liason to Middleboro regarding the casino issue, and who was filling in for chairman Herb Lemon that evening, suddenly eliminated the public forum segment scheduled for the end of the meeting. There was an outcry from the public, to which Mr. Oliari responded “I will not discuss the agenda with you or anyone else who is not an elected member on this board.” Obviously, Mr. Oliari is spending too much time in Middleboro. Let's hope Herb gets back real soon.

I’m going to miss those informative question and answer sessions. I wish Ms. Brunelle found them as interesting and enlightening as I do. But I suppose they have been keeping her out late on Monday nights. Perhaps she’d prefer you’d call her at home. She’s in the book.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Gorillas in our Midst

In a Boston Globe article dated March 4th of this year, Jack Healy, Middleboro’s outgoing town manager was approached by the representatives of the Wampanoag tribe looking for a location for their casino. At that time Mr. Healy expressed his opinion that a casino “would certainly change the character of the community forever, and I think that wouldn’t be very popular. If it were seriously considered, it would be a huge battle.”

The fear that Middleboro residents might not actually desire a casino, and in fact, possibly do battle with the prospect, could be a possible explanation for the unholy speed at which contract negotiations are currently proceeding.

Middleboro, in case you didn’t know, is a town with a colorful (and admirable) history of public debate. Citizens argued for over a year on what color to paint the town hall. It took another year to determine if it really wanted a drive-through at a downtown Dunkin’ Donuts. Every proposal for commercial land use is dissected in the public forum. Contractors have been expelled from meetings for not having their plans properly drawn. And yet, in less than four months time, town officials are proceeding with extreme haste toward a transaction which would forever change the character of their town, and convert a not-insignificant portion of it into a sovereign nation.

Glen Marshall, leader of the Wampanoag tribe, insists he wants a good relationship with Middleboro, yet Scott Ferson, the tribe’s spokesman refuses any further negation or discussion, and insists that the town take the current agreement for $7 million within two weeks, or the Tribe will proceed without it.

The formerly reluctant Healy, who put the land in question up for sale after being approached by the Tribe, has since become a cheerleader of the pro-casino opinion. To listen to him talk, a casino has no downside, except perhaps for those annoying anti-casino people who keep popping up with all their questions and concerns. Like, for instance, the stars. Apparently, the sort of mega-casino the Tribe is anticipating is so large and so brightly lit, not unlike a small city, that it would completely block the view of the stars in the night sky.

Dennis Whitten, a tribal law attorney hired by town selectmen in an effort to help them get a handle on what a casino might mean to Middleboro has, since the moment land sale was announced, insisted that a deal be struck as quickly as possible.

A month later, at a town meeting in the 600 seat high school auditorium, so many townspeople showed up for the discussion of a draft agreement with the Wampanoag’s that they had to be turned away. Most stopped before leaving, however, to sign recall petitions to remove several of the selectmen.

At that meeting, residents asked the most obvious question: Shouldn’t the town hold a referendum vote to find out whether the people even want a casino? It was explained that, due to a quirk in the law, a referendum vote could not be held in Middleboro until April of 2008, at which point those in the auditorium insisted, in unison, ‘We’ll wait!’ And still, the town’s new lawyer, an even more expensive expert in tribal law, asserted that he could have an agreement tied up within 4 weeks.

This was also disheartening news to the members of a recently formed impact study group charged with confronting the myriad effects of a mega casino, and given just a six week window to gather and analyze information, only now to learn that negotiations would be done well before they presented their findings.

So, to me, all of this urgency begs one question: “Where’s the fire?” If a casino is such a great deal for the community, wouldn’t a referendum vote bear that out? And if the Wampanoag’s want a good relationship with the town, why is it holding a gun to it’s head? With all due respect to Middleboro’s town officials, the Tribe and tribal law experts everywhere, shouldn’t something as elemental as the stars be allowed to receive more debate than the color of the town hall?

Stewards of the Land?

Because I know that the problems of a major casino will not confine themselves to Middleboro, when I first heard about the Precinct Street land sale to the Wampanoag's, I started driving down from Bridgewater to attend Middleboro town meetings, and of course, the Wampanoag informational session with Chief Glenn Marshall at the Nichols School.

Time after time, Mr. Marshall referred to himself and his tribe as, "Stewards of the Land". This was of some interest to me because, in my own small way, I also feel like a steward of the land.

I was born and raised in Middleboro and, as a child, there were no woods, no path or road or meadow or river in the West End that I hadn't explored and called my own. Much of it is now sits under cranberry bogs - but at least cranberry bogs are a Middleboro institution. The respect and love I developed for the land as a child never left. As an adult, I purchased six acres in Bridgewater, built a home on one and kept the other five as pristine woods, pasture and wetland. And every year I put my money where my mouth is when the property tax bill shows up. I have three active compost bins out back, I recycle faithfully, and when it's time to replace my car, I'll check out the new hybrids.

So like I said, in my own small, individual way, I feel like a steward of the land. But nowhere in my definition of stewardship is it possible to contemplate plunking down a thirty-four story casino in the midst of milk cows, horses and quiet homes. No where would it include forever altering the landscape and integrity of a small town for the sake of slot machines. And no where would it include funneling the traffic, consumption and waste of 50,000 daily casino visitors into unspoiled conservation land.

In severely economically depressed areas, a casino does bring relief, but when they show up in areas with 95% employment rates, they just cause more problems. Labor must be imported to fill low paying jobs, it must be housed and schooled and property taxes will rise as a result. And if you think a rotary flyover is going to make life easier, you weren't sitting in the 17 mile backup at the Bourne Bridge this weekend. Whatever cut of the profit the Wampanoag's gives Middleboro, it's not going cover the eventual costs to the town. And the border between our towns won't insulate my community from the lower property values, crime, addiction or drunk drivers a casino generates.

At the meeting with the Wampanoag's I watched in disbelief as a member of the Middleboro Historical Commission proclaimed with glee that a casino would make Middleboro a "destination town". But places like Middleboro and Bridgewater already are destination towns. They're the places people want to call home. They are the places people want to move and raise their children. They are those rare places in our part of Massachusetts where you can still find open fields and rock walls, and where every tree hasn't been cut down to make way for a Wal-mart or car dealership or subdivision. Our towns glisten like green jewels in a landscape of asphalt and shopping carts. Middleboro would do better to court industry which would bring families to enjoy the area, to take time exploring historic places, and spend their money in town, not inside the dark walls of a casino.

As a kid in Middleboro, I'd often discover arrowheads and axes that the Wampanoag's ancestors left behind, but knew nothing about them as a people. If the Tribe were truly stewards of the land it seems to me that a living heritage museum teaching generations about their culture and heritage would be a more respectful use for that particular property.

And to Middleboro residents who are concerned for the future of their town, I would request that you start calling and writing your representatives, and going to town meetings to make yourself heard. There will always be people who see the value of "land" and others who can see the value of "The Land". And from what I've seen on my visits to Middleboro, the stewards of your town see neither.

What happens in Middleboro... won't stay in Middleboro

Most people who've heard about the proposed casino in Middleboro are probably like I was, assuming it would be a long, lumbering process, subject to numerous political hurdles, road blocks, and arduous debate - with the end result being that it would eventually just "go away" - to be built in another town in another part of the state. It's just too difficult to imagine a Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun rising up from the sleepy all-but forgotten part of the world that is our corner of the South Shore.
And those people, like me, would be wrong. The Wampanoag Indian tribe has recently purchased 350 acres in a northern corner of Middleboro, property which is geographically closer to the towns of Bridgewater, East Bridgewater, West Bridgewater, Hanson, Halifax, Plympton, Lakeville, Raynham and Carver than some of Middleboro itself. And, according to an expert in tribal affairs brought in by the Middleboro board of selectmen, it's all over but the negotiations between the tribe and the town.

Now that the Wampanoag's own the land, it has applied for sovereignty, and if granted, the land will no longer be subject to state laws, such as those regarding zoning, or alcohol, or conservation. And while the tribe insists the land could still be used for a golf course or Indian housing, what it clearly intends to do is build a Foxwoods-like resort there - because that's where the money is. A final decision on a location for their casino, according to the tribe, has yet to be made. Other towns and cities in Massachusetts wait at the dance like wallflowers, batting their eyes, showing some skin, vying to be considered for the casino's new home. This is a distraction. It's clear that it's that pristine patch of earth in Middleboro which has become the prom queen the Wampanoag's want to leave with at the end of the night.

Why should we care about a casino in Middleboro?We would be naive to assume that bridges and town borders will insulate our communities from the effects of a major gambling casino. Though casino proponents insist jobs and tax revenue will outweigh any negative aspects, the reality is that the quality of life in communities within 50 miles of gambling facilities will deteriorate.

Most casino jobs will be part-time, low-paying jobs with few benefits. A consequence of all this poorly compensated labor is an increased need in surrounding communities for more low-income housing. The demand for additional low skilled labor becomes such that it will need to be imported, further burdening our school systems.

A gambling casino invariably carries in it's wake an increase in crime and addiction, and it's not going to stay within Middleboro town limits. Drunk drivers coming home from a late night at the slots are going to be careening down the same streets where my kids and your kids ride their bikes and wait for the bus, where mothers stroll their babies and where we all drive our cars. Our homes will become convenient targets for criminals in need of money to feed the machine, and all of our communities will suffer from the tragedy of gambling addiction, which breaks up families, destroys lives, and leads to bankruptcy, foreclosures and skyrocketing rates of suicide.

And rather than participating in a windfall from increased tourism, local businesses suffer because casinos soak up 80% of their business from within a 35- 50 mile radius, taking associated sales, employment and property tax contributions with it.
My home in Bridgewater is a six minute drive from the Precinct Street location - and then again my home is also a six minute drive from the center of West Bridgewater. Tucked into some woods beyond view, a casino might seem like it's a world way, but it's really just down the street. Your street.

How did this happen?
In case you were under the impression that Middleboro residents voted to permanently sell off a piece of itself forever and nail up the "Welcome" sign for the Wampanoag's, think again. The action was maneuvered by several elected officials, handled quickly and quietly, and has left many Middleboro residents in an understandable uproar.

Middleboro, like most of our towns, has been hurting for money to pay the bills. The town had long been in possession of some abandoned property off Precinct street, and decided the time was suddenly right to put it up for auction, a decision made not long after being approached by representatives of the Wampanoag Indians searching for land and a location for their casino. And while selectmen at a recent informational meeting denied conspiracy theories and tried to change the subject, residents rolled their eyes and considered recalls.

According to the tribal law expert brought in by the selectmen, now that the land belongs to the Wampanoag's, Middleboro has now been left with only two courses action: Either fight the Casino - a long, difficult and extraordinarily expensive effort requiring intensive participation by residents - or start negotiating with the Wampanoag's immediately for the best deal possible.

Concerned residents, refusing to believe a casino really is a done deal for their town, quickly formed a grassroots organization with plans to fight the casino project. Their website, is a wealth of valuable information on how casinos effect the communities around them, recent press surrounding the issue, and how citizens can voice their protest.

On Monday night Middleboro residents lined the town hall corridors and applauded a recommendation for a referendum vote on whether the town is or isn't in favor of welcoming a casino. Selectmen insisted an informal "walking poll" in Middleboro suggested that residents favored a casino by a 6 - 1 margin. Time will tell. A referendum vote, originally scheduled to be held within three months was delayed by a loophole conveniently discovered by a selectman, and won't have a chance of happening until April 2008.

Still, even if by referendum Middleboro votes overwhelmingly to oppose a casino, it doesn't mean they won't get a gambling facility. It would, however, perhaps influence Governor Patrick not to sign off on the tribe's request to allow class III gambling on the premises - which translates into slot machines - considered necessary to the success of a true large-scale casino.

What happens if a casino does come to Middleboro?
Middleboro will need to negotiate with the tribe for the best possible deal for their town. Perhaps the Wampanoag's will concede to build a ten, instead of a twenty-three story building. Or maybe they'll agree to help renovate some local landmarks or fund a municipal pet project or two. They'll have to agree to do something about rerouting the traffic, of course. In case you haven't been near the Middleboro rotary at dinner time in a long while, you might want to bring a book. And oh yes, the tax revenue - that all important percentage of casino revenue that Middleboro, not the surrounding communities, will get to keep - though we are free to keep the crime, the tax burden, the lower property values and the decreased quality of life. It's doubtful that a border town like Bridgewater will receive any outside funding for additional law enforcement to fight the additional crime a Middleboro casino is going bring to town.

It will be the town of Middleboro alone at the wheel of this car wreak, not any of our communities. And unless we start moving now, we won't have any voice in whether a class III gambling casino actually settles so close to our borders, or in any future negotiations with the Wampanoag tribe if it does.

What can we do?
Visit and learn more about what casinos do to local communities. The site includes links to our state representatives. Let them know how you feel. Just because you don't live in Middleboro doesn't mean you can't become part of the effort to prevent a casino. If you have friends or family in Middleboro, urge them to get involved, and to vote NO on the upcoming referendum. We in the surrounding communities would be wise to offer our support to the effort to stop a casino from being built, but we would also be foolish to continue to assume that this casino is easily going away, or that we won't be effected by it. We and our elected officials need to be involved in this process. We should be attending the meetings planned in Middleboro and voicing our concerns. If planning committees are to be formed, we should be on them. Because if a casino is coming, then YES, it will be in your backyard.