Now that Taunton residents have voted in favor of hosting a casino, attention shifts to the next casino battleground — East Boston. That’s where Suffolk Downs has teamed up with Caesar’s Palace of Las Vegas to build a $1 billion resort casino.
In East Boston, residents will vote on the proposal at a later date that’s not yet set. But already opposition is building, and it’s being led by Celeste Myers. Myers is powered by coffee. It’s 1 p.m. and that’s all she’s had to eat or drink this day. But it doesn’t slow her down, because she’s on a mission to tell as many people who will listen what a casino will do to East Boston.
“If we walk Maverick Square up until Central Square, we’ll see a lot of the small businesses that will be impacted,” Myers said. “That’s an important piece to see.”
Myers radiates energy as we walk around the square filled with small bakeries, restaurants and dry cleaners. She tells me she’s lived in East Boston for all of her 40 years. She works full-time in health care. She does a lot of community organizing on the side, usually around Eastie Pride day, political campaigns and festivals. She started No Eastie Casino with her brother late last year when the state legalized casinos.
“No one was really looking at this critically and really doing the work that the community was informed and making sure the impacted folks had a say,” she said. “I just felt the need to step up anything that’s going to threaten the way to life, I feel like that’s my responsibility to get involved.”
She and her brother, John Ribeiro, who lives in neighboring Winthrop, run the all-volunteer group. Recently they hosted a community meeting in a church basement. Ribeiro kicked it off with his vision.
“I believe East Boston’s best days are still ahead of it, not behind it,” Ribiero said. “And once this casino comes in, if it comes in, which is the plan of all of our elected officials, our best days will have been behind us.”
His sister tells the group she’s most worried about traffic.
“Studies show that we stand to see an increased traffic or visitor amount,” Myers said. “We don’t know how many cars that’s going to translate to, but 20,000 to 40,000 additional visitors in East Boston on [Route] 1A going to Suffolk Downs on a daily basis.
“Those of you live in the Orient Heights area or live in Winthrop. They ain’t going to make it there right, right because I can’t get home from work. We can’t get home as it is now.”
To ease the impact on traffic, Suffolk Downs and their casino partner say they’ll spend $40 million to improve local roads, including a flyover northbound on Route 1A. Myers said that’s not enough. Suffolk said the resort would create more than 4,000 jobs for residents. Myers said there’s no guarantee those jobs will actually go to locals. And Suffolk Downs said the casino would generate $200 million in new tax revenue. Myers said until the host community agreement is worked out and the casino is up and running, it’s unclear how much money East Boston could get.
The community has a history of activism. Residents have protested the extension of Logan Airport and the storage of hazardous materials. The one big difference in this fight, said Myers, is that residents will get to vote.
On the streets of East Boston, Myers guesses if the referendum were tomorrow, 60 percent of residents would vote against a casino.
“Pretty much every person I talk to has a concern, if they are not completely sold one way or the other they have a concern,” said Myers.
Myers said she spends anywhere from two to 10 hours a day talking about or working on opposition to the casino. It’s put her in the spotlight, which means media interviews and calls from her mother reminding her to style her long brown hair. In her fight against the casino, Myers enlists whoever she can, friends, family and even former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. She has a 21-year-old daughter, a husband and lots of lifelong friends. And she admits her activism has frayed some of her relationships.
“Look, Boston is very politically charged. I have had relationships that might be a little chafed right now, because of my position on the casino,” Myers said. “But this is our way of life, this is our quality of life, this is the bounty of our life’s work that we’re talking about here.”
Her friends respect her, even if they don’t agree with her on this.
“I am on the fence, but I have no problem with Celeste looking out for East Boston at all, I think someone has to,” said Damien Margato. “Someone has to make sure we’re doing this right, if it’s going to be done or not going to be done.”
And Myers said that’s what she’s doing — looking out for East Boston.