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, www.casinofacts.org 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 www.casinofacts.org 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.