Hoping for a Miracle
There was a time when the New Bedford-Fall River region was among the most prosperous in the world. Today, it struggles economically. But there's hope and a battered resiliency here, one that's often found in old fishing communities. In fact, New Bedford's cobble-stoned streets and salty air give it a similar feel to tourist-heavy Salem on the North Shore -- though it promotes whalers instead of witches. But New Bedford has so far failed to foster the tourism successes of Salem. With its out-of-the-way location and and double-digit unemployment, locals say its a forgotten area of the state.
Elaine Lima, who owns the Black Whale t-shirt shop in New Bedford, says the region gets showered with lots of Boston-based political promises that typically go nowhere -- a commuter rail that never came, a regional airport that never was expanded, and the long-talked-about oceanairium that never was built. A casino holds a lot of promise, she says but after so many promises, so many times, it's hard to believe that anything actually will happen.
"I must say it's promise upon promise. After awhile it just gets repetitious; is it ever going to happen? So, yeah, you do lose momentum. But then comes a mayor who is excited about it. Economic development is excited about it. We have a wonderful cast of characters for our leaders in the city, and I can imagine how they feel. I mean, I'm just a little person. But someone who runs the city, they have to be frustrated with the promises we've had and they don't fulfill them."
The mayor of New Bedford is Scott Lang. And traditionally, he says, the region has been neglected by Beacon Hill. Gaming has been held up as a beacon of prosperity several times before here, with slot machines and bingo parlors. Now, Lange is getting his city in the cue to host a destination casino. But despite all the city's struggles, one thing Lang's not willing to do is gamble on the attractions New Bedford has now, such as the historic Zeiterian theater and the dozen or so new restaurants that have opened within the last year-and-a-half.
"The idea that we would have a casino come in and build itself an island onto itself, to build itself a universe black hole where everything is sucked in to it would be a big mistake in an urban area. ... We think that we can best team with a casino to continue to rebuild the rebirth of the economic sector of New Bedford. If you bring in a casino and it starts to duplicate all of these different, literally advantages that we have right now in our economic sector, I think literally it can harm it."
Lang says two private groups have optioned casino sites in the city, and he expects their pre-planning work will give New Bedford a running start on the competition, including nearby Fall River.
"And they both have come in and explained what type of casino they would lie to build and what they would like to bring to the city. I have explained to them that it has to be an integrated economic type project, otherwise it is something that won't work in the city."
State lawmakers are debating a bill that would have a state-appointed commission decide who gets to open a facility and where. It's expected that the commission would act quickly, but Clyde Barrow of the Center of Policy of Analysis at UMass Dartmouth says Lang and other local officials will have a say in what a casino looks like in their community.
"Some of the things they could negotiate might be the exact kinds of parameters of the facilities ... like it might not have a theater. In addition, what a lot of casinos have been doing around the country recently s negotiating agreements with local vendors that allow frequent players to cash in their comp points off site. In other words, if you are a local player, you could cash them in at a local restaurant or a retail store."
Political leaders in other sections of the state also are moving to armor existing businesses -- particularly cultural and entertainment venues -- against the tactics and audience draw of casinos. Rep. Mark Falzone of Wakefield, helped craft a report on the impact resort casinos could have on the state's arts and culture venues.
Falzone proposes limiting casinos to a maximum of four separate performance spaces, with three of them holding 100 people and the forth holding a maximum of 350 people. To give those numbers some context, Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut, has three entertainment venues, the smallest holding 300 people and the largest holding 10,000. To prevent similar sizes in Massachusetts, Falzone says its best to limit the entertainment complexes in the law rather than leave it to local cities and towns to negotiate.
"There's no substitute for getting it right state-wide right away at the state level. In many cases, there could be, I mean, can't you think of scenerios there could be a casino in a community that doesn't have any performing arts organizations but the community next door does? And so the impact would be a regional impact."
Southeastern, Massachusetts is a region long talked about as a prime casino location, including three years ago when Gov. Deval Patrick proposed three casinos -- one in the Boston area, one in western, Mass. and the other in the southeast. Senate Majority Leader Therese Murray of Plymouth also supports a casino in the southeast. Under current legislation, House Speaker DeLeo has left the door open to possibly work with Native American tribes in the future, but he's essentially proposed TWO resort casinos, raising the possibility that if one is in Boston and the other in Western, Mass., this section of the state could get left out of the mix.
"Southeastern, Massachuseets -- sometimes I almost feel like Charlie Brown playing football with Lucy. Every time he runs up, Lucy pulls the ball away," said David Wojnar chairman of the Board of Selectmen in Acushnet, New Bedford's much-smaller neighbor of 11,000 people and no stop lights.
Sitting on a bench at the town green, which once echoed with the clip clap of horses, but now ebbs and flows with truck engines and jake brakes, Wojnar says the entire region has a stake in this debate. Acushnet could never host a casino itself, but if it ends up living down the road from one, Wojnar says it should be compensated.
"You go half mile down the road and you are in New Bedford. My street is half Acushnet and half New Bedford. So, it's not just a potential New Bedford project. It's an Acushnet, New Haven and New Bedford project in my mind."
But if a casino never comes to southeastern Massachusetts, Wojnar says it would be another example of dashed hopes.
"There would be a lot of discontent," he says. "And it's one of those things, you always want what you can't have in a way. There would be some people who don't want a casino but would feel slighted, like, here we go being dumped on again. It would be the perfect storm of people's angst or agitation, if you will, you have some people saying they did it to us one more time."
Route 128 doesn't run through southeastern, Massachusetts, and the nearest Mass Turnpike exit is a good 70 miles away. It's an area people often pass through on their way to Cape Cod, or the other way to Providence. The hope among many people here is that a resort casino could change all that. But art, culture and cobblestone streets haven't lifted the region's unemployment rate and failing schools, and despite its promise, some say a casino at any cost isn't a sure bet either.