Stakes are high in casino debate, official says

BOSTON -- The stakes are high for a community welcoming a casino, according to Daniel Avila, associate director for policy and research at the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm for the Church in the state.

Middleborough recently approved the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s proposal to build a $1 billion casino in their town. At a town meeting July 28, residents voted 2,387 to 1,335 in favor of the plan that would bring in $250 million in infrastructure improvements as well as millions in annual payments. The vote followed almost three hours of debate.

If the casino receives state and federal approval, it will become the first casino in the Commonwealth.

Those in support of the plan hope that the revenue it generates for the town will cover budget deficits and expand available services. Some of the money will go toward road improvements to accommodate casino traffic.

Tribal leaders see the victory as a vote of confidence that will benefit both the tribe and the town.

“It’s historic times for the town and the tribe together,” said Glenn Marshall, chairman of the tribal council. “It’s over now. We can concentrate on building relationships with some of the folks who weren’t so happy and see if we can’t bring them around so they’ll be happy as well.”

After 30 years of seeking federal recognition, the tribe received it in May. Since then the tribe has purchased 125 acres of Middleborough land. The tribe also has the option to buy an additional 200 acres and is speaking with a landowner about another 200 acre tract. Their tribal home is on Cape Cod.

The tribe’s financial partners are Sol Kerzner and Len Wolman, who developed Mohegan Sun in Connecticut in 1996.

Opponents of the proposal say the casino will hurt Middleborough, a town of about 20,000 residents.

“It’s important to realize that the stakes are very high in something of this nature,” Avila said. “I’m not sure that the community had time to come to grips with all of the long-range consequences of a casino built and run in their community.”

The downside to casinos is an increase in the number of community members exposed to the temptation to gamble and to do so beyond their means. Individuals become addicted, and that addiction affects the person’s family, friends and others in the surrounding community, he said.

Fortunately, the community will have more time to reconsider their decision since the casino still needs state and federal approval, Avila added.

“The process is going to be a long one,” he said. “It’s not something that’s going to be quickly done, from my understanding, and it does afford further opportunity for reflection and perhaps a greater awareness of the downside of casino gambling.”

Avila said that he hopes more voters will learn about the concerns that surround casino gambling.

“It is an issue that the bishops have spoken out against in the past,” he said.

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley said in a July 27 Web log post, “The Church’s stance on gambling is a nuanced one. We believe that gambling can be a legitimate form of recreation, like drinking alcohol. But, like alcohol, there are also dangers involved in gambling. Casino gambling, I believe, is fraught with many dangers for a community.”

Gambling drains resources away from community businesses and promotes gambling addiction that destroys families, he added.

“The Church in Massachusetts has always opposed casino gambling for that reason,” he said. “Relying on casinos makes us gambling junkies, and we become dependent on that money, which will result in many ruined lives, ruined businesses and ruined neighborhoods.”

AP materials contributed to this report.