New Bedford voters go to the polls tomorrow to decide if they want a $650-million dollar casino, hotel and conference center built along the city’s waterfront. Developers promise the project will breathe much-needed new life into the city and generate thousands of jobs. They also would put $50-million dollars into a massive environmental cleanup. 

New Bedford resident Gene Gallagher was one of about 70 people who showed up at the Normandin Middle School in the city’s North End last week to learn more about the project -- though Gallagher already knows how he’ll vote.

“Well, I think that whole area of the waterfront now is a just a blighted, abandoned power plant with broken windows – it’s a disaster,” Gallagher said. “It’s a 50-million dollar toxic waste site. So I think it’d be great to revitalize that section of the harbor.”

Inside the echoey school auditorium, casino developer Andrew Stern of KG-Urban Enterprises, said the cleanup of an old NStar power plant site would be just the beginning. He’s also proposing a 300-room hotel, a conference center, and a restaurant and entertainment complex to be housed inside the restored power plant. He said the complex would generate spillover business for the downtown area.

But audience member Catherine Adamowicz disagreed, saying casino-goers would remain in the casinos once they got there.

“When people go into casinos, there aren’t windows, there aren’t clocks. People are not meant to pay attention to what’s going on outside…they stay,” Adamowicz said.

Stern took issue with that, saying his casino will be filled with natural light. He cited the Wynn casino in Las Vegas as an example of the type of project he plans to emulate.

“It’s impossible to walk around the casino anywhere on the floor without having natural light flooding in your face,” he said.

He said the days of dark, windowless casinos may still be fixed in peoples’ minds, but he’s looking to change that.

“Nobody will pay to be locked inside anymore. I’m not putting a casino in a retro-modern airplane hangar on five of the most valuable acres of waterfront property in Massachusetts that I have to spend 50-million dollars to make buildable in the first place,” said Stern.

Derek Santos is Executive Director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council. He told the audience that a “yes” vote on Tuesday does not mean that New Bedford automatically gets a casino.

“It means that we can then take the next step in the process. Only the Gaming Commission gets to make that decision by the end of the year,” Santos explained.

The decision the Commission has to make is whether to award the one casino permit allocated for the South Coast to New Bedford or to Brockton, which recently approved its own casino referendum by a slim margin. Andrew Stern is confident New Bedford will get the nod.

“There is no natural conflict here. The idea is that we’re all in this together, and you make the pie bigger, and the ghost town isn’t a ghost town anymore,” Stern said.

Leaving the meeting with his wife, New Bedford resident Kevin Piva seemed to agree with Stern’s assessment. He said his questions had been answered at he meeting.

“We’ll be voting for it. I think it’s a good plan for New Bedford. The way I see it right now is…what we got goin’ on right now isn’t all that much, so I feel like we don’t have much to lose. I mean, it’s a smart decision. Anybody that’s willing to spend 50 million to clean up the downtown New Bedford area, it’s all right with me. I don’t remember the last time a company was willing to bring that kinda money into New Bedford,” said Piva.

Supporters of the casino tout other potential benefits, too, including good-paying jobs and a welcomed boost to the city’s image. On top of that, there’s the promise of 12.5 million dollars in annual payments that would go directly into city coffers.


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