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As Boston Dreams Of Amazon, Suffolk Downs Braces For The End

There's an eerie feeling at Suffolk Downs these days. The mile-long track is still immaculately manicured. The grandstand seats still gleam. And from Wednesday to Sunday, patrons still place bets on races happening elsewhere. But the whole place is permeated by the knowledge that the end is near.

"Beyond 2018, this is going be a major mixed-use development," said Chip Tuttle, Suffolk Downs' COO.

For years, Tuttle hoped to save the 80-year-old track by adding a new casino. But when the state awarded the Boston-area's lone casino license to Steve Wynn's Everett project in 2014, instead of a competing proposal located at Suffolk Downs, Tuttle reconciled himself to the inevitable.

Today, he blames the same industry he once tried to partner with.

"Over the last 20 years, casino gambling has gone from two states, Nevada and New Jersey, to 39 or 40," Tuttle said. "Horse racing still does really, really well on the big days, the big weekends ... Where it really is suffering is as a day-to-day gambling product. On Wednesday or Thursday, during the week, it’s just got greater competition."

Suffolk Downs did add two extra racing days this weekend — for a total of eight this year — after the Massachusetts Gaming Commission shared some surplus cash from the state’s Race Horse Development Fund. Still, in the long run, Tuttle's new best-case scenario is a standalone simulcast betting parlor located somewhere near the current track. 

"We need some changes in the current simulcasting and racing laws to do that," Tuttle said. "A simulcast facility in what would be more like a modern sports bar, but set up for horse racing specifically."

Meanwhile, the land where Suffolk Downs currently sits might be the hottest development spot in Massachusetts. The HYM Investment Group — known for projects like Brighton’s Boston Landing — bought the parcel for a reported $155 million earlier this year.

David Begelfer, the head of NAIOP Massachusetts: The Commercial Real Estate Development Association, says it was an excellent investment.

"Suffolk Downs is a phenomenal development opportunity," he said. "It’s going to be a mixed-use development. It’s going to have housing, it’s going to have retail, it’s going to have office, it’ll probably have lab [space]. It’ll have all these things that are going to be built out over the next 10 years, plus. [And] it has mass transit ... It’s an ideal site."

Now, of course, there's fevered speculation that Amazon might select Boston for its second national headquarters — and build a new 50,000 person campus right where Suffolk Downs currently sits.

HYM declined WGBH News' request for an interview. But this week, during a Revere City Council hearing, HYM head Thomas O'Brien urged the city not to count on Amazon.

"No promises on that, by the way," O'Brien said. "The way we think of this, it’s kind of plan A and plan 1A. So we’re swinging for the fences, but we have a great plan, whatever happens."

O'Brien also said whatever Amazon decides, HYM will develop the site quickly. Begelfer thinks they’ll craft two plans simultaneously —one featuring Amazon, and one without. 

"You go forward on the basis that you’re not going to have Amazon there, but you obviously try to attract Amazon to it," he said. "If you get the gold ring, I think you’ll be able to accommodate yourself."

But Begelfer adds a note of caution. While landing Amazon would be a coup, he says, its arrival would create a ripple effect that could seriously stress the Boston area's housing market and workforce.

"You’re going to have a lot of other companies that want to be near the mother ship, if you will," Befelger said. "It’s not just 50,000 jobs, we're talking about a lot more. If we don’t plan in advance for, over the next 10 to 15 years, to change how we produce housing that could be much more affordable, how we could have skilled workers retrained, or trained in the first place, we’re going to have a serious problem."

For now, though, Amazon’s local impact is totally hypothetical. The end of horse racing at Suffolk Downs is not.

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