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Taunton Residents Weigh Pros, Cons Of Casino Proposal

TAUNTON, Mass. — Taunton residents take to the polls Saturday to weigh in on the Mashpee Wampanoag’s proposed casino for their city.

We visited Taunton earlier this week to see the proposed site and to talk with residents about how the $500 million complex could affect their city.

We start with a supporter. WBUR’s Steve Brown spoke with Terry Quinn, a lifelong resident of Taunton who is with the group Together for Taunton. We wanted to find out how a casino could affect the downtown area.

Taunton's City Hall  has been closed since a fire damaged the historic building in 2010. (Kathleen McNerney/WBUR)

Taunton's City Hall has been closed since a fire damaged the historic building in 2010. (Kathleen McNerney/WBUR)

Terry Quinn: We’re standing in front of City Hall with a sign on it that says, “Don’t come in, go to the temporary City Hall down the street.” And really it’s a shame. It’s a beautiful building. It’s the center of downtown. And hopefully some influx of money can generate income to go ahead and repair it. But that’s the problem. There is no place to get income for city hall and for major renovations downtown.

Steve Brown: How will a casino in East Taunton help out this downtown?

I think the influx of money and jobs. You know, you not only have people going to the casino and spending money, but they have to get there. Hopefully [they] stop along the way and spend money along the way — stop at the local stores, local gas stations, local restaurants. But also the people who work there. Maybe they’ll have more money in pocket to get back out and come downtown and go eat at some local restaurants or local shops.

We’re right next to the Taunton Fire Department, the oldest working fire department in the country. You know, those needs upgrades. The police department: 20 new police officers or more. Sometimes in the city, we don’t have that many police officers out. It’s a huge city land-wise, we need coverage. And I think once we can get police and fire stabilized, we can really go forth with that with the extra money and revenue the casino is going to bring to the city on all the other aspects.

The permanent jobs you were talking about earlier. Any guarantees that a certain number are going to Taunton residents?

Terry Quinn of Together for Taunton, a group that supports the Taunton casino proposal. (Kathleen McNerney/WBUR)

Terry Quinn of Together for Taunton, a group that supports the casino proposal. (Kathleen McNerney/WBUR)

They don’t guarantee a specific number, that would be illegal. They guarantee good faith effort to hire local people and that’s what we expect they’ll do, as far as the contract goes.

No matter your position, there’s always an upside and a downside. Do you see any downside and how do you get around that?

I see the downside from the neighborhood, where it’s going to be. People are worried about traffic and just more activity in their own neighborhood. And I think that the engineers, the traffic, have taken care of that. I’m hoping it’s not as bad as they think it’s going to be.

One of the things is it’s right across the street from an elementary school. How is that going to pan out?

Well, I would hope that the morning bus at 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning, the afternoon bus at 2 o’clock is not same time that the casino is busy. And also it’s not directly across the street, it is [300] or 400 feet down the road. And the school itself is set back, probably half a mile, a quarter mile or so, from the road.

So you don’t see any downside to that or negatives?

I don’t. I really don’t. I think they can all work together.

Just recently, a couple of neighboring communities voted down a casino overwhelmingly. It was a different proposal, different tribe, so it is comparing apples and oranges, but does that concern you that there might be a momentum that there’s a “not in my backyard” feeling going on out there?

It doesn’t concern me. I think the big apples and oranges difference there is we’ve gotten the information out to people. We’ve let them know what the benefits are. We’ve talked to them, asked what their concerns were, built those concerns into the [intergovernmental agreement]. And I don’t think the information that we’re presenting — all the benefits — was out there in Lakeville and Freetown. And I think it made them a little nervous to vote on it.

But on the other side of town, over in East Taunton, there’s some opposition. Near the entrance to the proposed casino site we met up with Michelle Littlefield. She’s with the group Preserving Taunton’s Future.

Michelle Littlefield: We have approximately 800 children that go to this school. As you can see, it’s very busy. The entrance to the casino is only 300 feet up the road. That was my No. 1 concern when we learned the location. That was my No. 1 issue. And granted, “not in my back yard,” a lot of people take offense to that, but you know what, it’s a legitimate, legitimate reason to not want a casino. Three-hundred feet from an elementary school when you’ve got a casino that’s open 24/7, providing alcoholic beverages to their patrons, sometimes for free. That’s a scary situation.

Steve Brown: One of the arguments that proponents of the casino say is it’s going to bring jobs, it’s going to bring some tax revenue into this area. Are jobs needed here and could the city use the money?

Michelle Littlefield of Preserving Taunton's Future stands outside the East Taunton Elementary School, about 300 feet from the proposed casino site. (Kathleen McNerney/WBUR)

Michelle Littlefield of Preserving Taunton's Future stands outside the East Taunton Elementary School, about 300 feet from the proposed casino site. (Kathleen McNerney/WBUR)

Every city could use money. I’m sure that our officials would find a way to spend it, no doubt. We certainly know that there’s a need for jobs out there. However, if you read the impact studies, they plan on bringing 700 experienced casino professionals in from out of state. Another 600 to 800, maybe 900 are going to unemployed tribe members. And then there’s no guarantees in our [intergovernmental agreement] that they’ll go to Taunton residents. So the impact on schools, the impact on our city infrastructure bringing all those families and all those people in to work at the casino, I don’t think our city can handle that.

Talk about the intergovernmental agreement between tribe and the city. You say it’s a bad deal.

It’s just a horrible deal for the city. Eight million dollars a year is a drop in the bucket when have a $170 million-a-year budget. And then it’s capped after 10 years. What business do we offer to come to the city and after 10 years, you don’t have to pay any more taxes. That’s just crazy. Your taxes never increase. I’d like to buy a house and get that deal in this city, but it’s unheard of. Then there are also the issues of the bonding. And there’s questions as to whether or not if the tribe were to walk away from this, is the city held liable for paying those bonds?

If the tribe comes in here with this 142 acres of land, you’re concerned that they may expand, that there’s other property around here and you’re concerned about what will happen with that.

That’s right. If the tribe gets land into trust and then they annex additional lands, for example the mall. If they were to take the mall and purchase the mall, that is $1.97 million that comes off Taunton’s tax rolls. That’s a huge concern. So while we’re getting $8 million a year as a PILOT [payment in lieu of taxes] that’s capped, we may be losing other tax incomes.

You’re outspent in this. Casino proponents have got thousands of dollars. You have hundreds of dollars into this. Does that discourage you?

Not at all. We will reach out to every resident in this city whether we have $300,000 to spend or we have $300 to spend. Whether we have to go door-to-door because we can’t match the mailings and things of that nature, we’ll still get our word out there.

Should it go against the way you want it, should voters approve it, what are your other options? Are you looking at legal options? Are there other things on the table that you could possibly take advantage of?

Beyond Sunday, I really couldn’t tell you. Our members, and our chairman, our officers, our board of directors have nothing to do with any lawsuits at this point. We’re solely focused on getting out the “no” vote.

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