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Mohegan Sun rests its case with voters in Revere, Mass.

By Brian Hallenbeck

Publication: The Day

Published February 24. 2014 4:00AM   Updated February 24. 2014 9:35AM
Courtesy of Mohegan Sun
An artist's rendering of the proposed Mohegan Sun casino project in Revere, Mass.
400 attend casino rally before referendum

Revere, Mass. - Mohegan Sun prepped for its second bite at Massachusetts' casino apple Sunday by hosting what amounted to a get-out-the-vote rally at a VFW hall here.

More than 400 residents packed the venue, a fraction of the number expected to vote in Tuesday's referendum on Mohegan Sun's $1.3 billion Suffolk Downs casino project, which promises thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in annual payments to Revere.

"There's an awful lot at stake," Revere Mayor Daniel Rizzo said, briefly breaking away from supporters at the Friends of Mohegan Sun-sponsored rally. "This project would help me provide our people with property-tax relief, water- and sewer-tax relief, and provide money for education and infrastructure improvements. We're very excited about the vote."

Not far from the Joseph Mottolo VFW hall, about 200 casino opponents marched against the project.

Recent history is one reason the pro-casino crowd might be confident.

On Election Day in November, Revere voters backed a previous Suffolk Downs casino project that failed because voters in East Boston - the project would have straddled the two jurisdictions - rejected it.

More than 60 percent of those who cast ballots in Revere favored the Suffolk Downs project.

"Our host community agreement with Mohegan Sun offers us three times the benefits of the last agreement," Rizzo said. "I think we're going to win by a bigger plurality than last time."

The Mohegan Sun project would be built on Suffolk Downs-owned land located entirely in Revere. The proposal is vying with Wynn Resorts' $1.6 billion plan for neighboring Everett in the race for the sole Greater Boston casino license to be awarded by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

Matilda Bonfardeci, a Friends of Mohegan Sun member, said she believes support for a Revere casino has grown since November. A lot of the "fence-sitters" who sat out the last referendum are on board this time, she said.

"I've been reaching out to families to make sure they know this is about creating jobs and economic benefits, but also about money for a new high school," the mother of two said.

For the Mohegans, Tuesday's referendum also offers a second chance. Back in November, voters in the western Massachusetts town of Palmer shot down a $1 billion Mohegan Sun proposal in an outcome generally considered the most surprising of all the casino referendum outcomes in Massachusetts.

Bay State voters have tended to back projects in gritty, urban areas and reject those proposed in suburban settings.

Clyde Barrow, the gaming expert who directs the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, expects things to follow form Tuesday.

"Mohegan Sun should win the election. I think it will win the election," he said in an interview last week.

If Mohegan Sun does win, however, it's not likely to be by as wide a margin as the earlier Suffolk Downs project prevailed in Revere, Barrow said.

"It's going to be a couple of points closer, mainly because of the mobilization of the anti-casino forces. It's not that there are more (opponents), they're just more effective," he said.

In Revere, local clergy formed the anti-casino Friends of Revere, which has supported the efforts of the like-minded Don't Gamble on Revere group. Tim Bogertman, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Revere, agreed their side is better organized than it was before the November vote.

"Last time we got 4,232 'no' votes without any real effort," Bogertman said. "Now, we've had a real concerted effort. We're feeling very hopeful. We think we have a real chance to defeat this thing."

Bogertman said the clergy's objection to casinos isn't entirely on moral grounds.

"It's even more about our concern for the common good," he said. "A casino will destroy the fabric of the community. It will lead to crime, more traffic and hurt property values. A casino will take us down."

Some have pointed to recent poll numbers that they say indicate statewide support for casinos is on the wane.

A Suffolk University Political Research Center survey released early this month found that 51 percent of voters who said they were likely to vote in Massachusetts' 2014 gubernatorial election approve of casinos in the state. Thirty-seven percent disapprove of casinos and 12 percent were undecided.

Earlier polls found as many as 57 percent of likely voters supported casinos.

In the same Suffolk University survey, 20 percent of the respondents indicated they believe it makes sense to put a Greater Boston casino in Revere, while 8 percent thought Everett would be a better location. Forty-eight percent preferred neither Revere nor Everett and 25 percent were undecided.

Mitchell Etess, the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority's chief executive officer, said Mohegan Sun and its supporters have not detected a groundswell of anti-casino sentiment in Revere, a city, he noted, that has long been familiar with gaming through its connection to Suffolk Downs and the defunct Wonderland Greyhound Park.

"Those Suffolk poll numbers aren't all that bad if you're for casinos," Etess said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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