BOSTON — Thoroughbred horses have been racing at Suffolk Downs going on 80 years. In its heyday, 55,000 fans would jam the grandstand and turn out to bet on the races.
But in recent years, Suffolk Downs has fallen on hard times. Odds are that without a casino, the track is history.
Residents of East Boston and Revere will vote next month on whether they want to make Suffolk Downs home to a $1 billion resort casino. The racetrack is one of three sites in the running for the state’s single casino license in Greater Boston.
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Last Saturday, the weather was perfect. But despite free parking and admission, just 2,500 people came to Suffolk Downs. And in a small — and admittedly unscientific survey about the casino — there wasn’t a naysayer at the track.
As he unfolded the daily racing form, Water Dixon said fears that a casino would bring more crime are overblown.
“You don’t hear talk of people fighting and carrying on at a casino,” Dixon said. “All they’re there for is pulling those little machines and win.”
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Helen Reynolds, who came up from Rhode Island to bet at Suffolk Downs. ”Hey, what the heck? You got Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun out in Connecticut, you can get one here.”
“Everybody gambles. I want the casino here,” said bettor Frank Donohue. ”Why should I go to some other state? Let the money stay here.”
Suffolk Downs and its partner, Caesars Entertainment, say a casino at the track would create 4,000 permanent jobs and add $52 million a year to Boston’s budget. But opponents say it’s not worth it.
“Casino jobs aren’t the kind of jobs we need in East Boston,” said Thomas Domurat, a pastor at Most Holy Redeemer Parish in Eastie. Domurat is one of more than 30 religious leaders who’ve just formed a new group, Friends of East Boston, to rally opposition against the plan.
“A casino will bring more crime, gambling addiction, traffic, personal bankruptcies and will damage local businesses,” he said. “There must be a better way and casinos are not that way.”
Eastie is a community in transition. While Irish, Italian, Russian and Southeast Asians have long made East Boston home, the newest residents come from Central and South America.
Jichu Chappy and Juvenita Alvarado run a shoe repair shop in the historic Public Welfare building turned businesses incubator on Maverick Street. They share work but split opinions on the proposed casino.
Money and work from a casino make a convincing argument for Chappy, but Alvarado takes a moral stand.
“I don’t like,” she said. “I don’t like. Because if my church says no good here, I say, too, no good for here.”
Just out of the Sumner Tunnel in East Boston is Santarpios — an Eastie institution. Ellen Martorano, who works behind the bar, lives next to Suffolk Downs in Revere.
“People down that area where I live are dead against it,” she said. “To me, it’s just going to bring crime. The jobs aren’t going to be what people think they’re going to be and I believe it’s going to hurt all the small businesses that are already in the area.”
Martorano’s co-worker, Amando Calderetti, doesn’t agree. He’s been working at Santarpio’s for 45 years and says whether the casino comes or not, it won’t help or hurt business.
“Casino customers are going to be from out of the city and what are they going to do? They don’t care about Santarpios and East Boston,” he said. “They’re going to the casino. The casino has a buffet, OK we eat a buffet for $8 or $10. You know what I’m talking about? That’s the way it goes.”
We’ll know which way it goes Nov. 5, when residents in East Boston and Revere vote on the proposed casino at Suffolk Downs.