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Heated Testimony Fires Up Slots Debate at City Council Forum

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

 

The Worcester City Council took up the Mass Gaming & Entertainment slots proposal at the committee level on Monday, requesting public comment.

Over 200 people packed the Worcester Hibernian Cultural Center on Monday night for the Worcester City Council Joint Committee Hearing on Economic Development and Public Safety's public forum on a Worcester slots proposal.   

Testimony was heard from the public regarding the "development of a community host agreement" -- with a strong majority  of attendees providing impassioned speeches in opposition to a slots parlor in Worcester.

"Elected officials are the most addicted to casinos -- and I mean the revenue they see from them," said Lee Bona, President of the League of Women Voters of the Worcester Area, who started off public testimony following the initial statement on the proposal by City Manager Michael O'Brien.  

Committee Co-Chair William Eddy began the public forum urging attendees to provide constructive feedback, saying "whether you're for or against [the slots proposal], please keep that in mind."  However, passions -- and tempers -- flared, especially among Green Island residents.  

Forum Intended for Public Input on Host Community "Agreement" Provided Divisive

City Manager Michael O'Brien began the testimony by saying he was tasked with "negotiating a complex community host agreement with Mass Gaming and Entertainment LLC" that included taking into consideration such factors as site layout, traffic mitigation, public safety, and public health, among other issues.  

According to a public letter from O'Brien to the City Council that was made available to all attendees, O'Brien stated that following the completion of a negotiated agreement, he would then request the City Council for an election to take place on a date "not less than 60 days or more than 90 days" following the request.  

A number of people who testified at the forum expressed concern that should the Council decide to schedule the vote in conjunction with the upcoming special Senate election primary, the Council would have to move in short order to make that happen.

At one point during the testimony, Councilman Eddy made clear to the crowd that there is no set date for June 25th, rather the council "would look at that date like any other date."  

Neighbors, Community Groups, Unions Speak Out in Strong Opposition 

Lee Bona, President of the League of Women Voters of the Worcester Area followed O'Brien, noting that the League was opposed to any slots proposal, saying that problem gamblers are the "industry's best customers."

Green Island community activist Lorraine Laurie gave an impassioned speech after Bona, claiming that a slots parlor was "not the neighborhood's first choice," and that want they really want is a bank, a supermarket, or a pharmacy in the area.  

Victor Ortiz with the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling said that while their position is technically neutral on the proposal, there are "zero resources" for problem gambling in Worcester, noting Fitchburg was the closest location.  Councilor Joseph O'Brien followed Ortiz' testimony by asking what the City Council should consider to address the situation.  Ortiz said that a gambling treatment site in Worcester that's "comprehensive" would be needed to deal with the issue.  

Other Worcester residents went on the record voicing opposition to the slots plan, including Kate O'Neill with Unite Here, claiming that Rush Street Gaming CEO Neil Bluhm has been "running aggressive anti-union campaigns at [Rush-owned] Sugarhouse Casino in Philadelphia and Rivers Casino."  O'Neill urged the Council to negotiate a "labor peace agreement"  with unions involved as part of any community agreement.  

Slots Supporters Voices Heard as Well 

Following City Manager O'Brien's initial testimony, Councilor Philip Palmieri asked O'Brien if it was accurate that "investment in a slots parlor and hotel would be upwards of $200-$250 million, would add 500 jobs to the economy, and increase currently tax revenue at the Wyman Gordon site from $40,000-$50,000 currently to $5 or $6 million?"  O'Brien answered in the affirmative to each of the points.  

When Councilman George Russell asked if there was any plan at this time from the developer, O'Brien said he'd only seen a "first generation color schematic" that he found "without merit" to share with the public as this juncture.  

Mullen Sawyer, Executive Director of the Oak Hill Community Development Corporation, went on record in support of bringing slots to Worcester, saying that the city needs jobs and benefits, and that 40% of residents in the district don't have access to their own transportation and need employment in the immediate vicinity.  

John Reed said that the proposed project as a "brownfield to a greenfield" showed "major development" in a previously undeveloped area.  He called for additional "green" measures "like those at WPI" to be taken so that Worcester could be a national leader in the green movement.  

 

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