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June 29, 2015

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Why Steve Wynn’s plan for Foxborough casino has been so divisive

Town board blocks casino, but many Patriots fans would welcome it

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Karoun Demirjian

Mark Sullivan, a Foxborough town selectman, in his garage with his son Seamus, explains how the standoff over the casino is ripping his town apart, as he laments that the drama is bound to drag on at least another six months.

Foxborough

Cecelia and Frank Colella walk along a street in Foxborough. The 50-year residents say introducing a casino will destroy the character of their town. Launch slideshow »
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New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, right, hosts casino mogul Steve Wynn and his wife, Andrea Hissom, on the field at Gillette Stadium prior to the Patriots' NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn has exported his gaming know-how to the Jersey Shore and the South China Sea. But those successes don’t seem to matter much to the residents of this sleepy enclave of 17,000 who are wary Wynn might turn their stretch of country highway into the Bay State Strip.

“It’s going to change the whole town,” said Cecelia Colella, 74, who has lived in Foxborough for 50 years. “We absolutely do not need this ... not in our backyard.”

The town is the site of Wynn’s latest plan to build a destination casino, conference center and resort. The location he’s chosen is directly opposite Gillette Stadium, home of the NFL’s New England Patriots, on the town’s outskirts. Massachusetts legalized casino gaming late last year.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who owns the land and would lease it to Wynn for a reported $1 billion, has joined Wynn to push the proposal. Both stress the casino would fit within the existing stadium and shopping area.

But for town residents that setting is a source of concern.

Once a week, 10 weeks a year, the town more than quadruples in size when the Patriots host home games, as football fans crowd Route 1 with their cars, grills and cases of beer.

It’s a taste of the hordes that would-be developers hope would also come for a casino.

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The front entrance of Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, in Foxborough.

At first blush, it’s not a bad bet: Among the throngs who came to watch the Patriots trounce the Buffalo Bills in the regular season-ender New Year’s Day, it was hard to find anyone opposed to the idea.

“It would be the all-around package: Come to a tailgate, go to a football game, and after the football game, after a great win, go gamble at the casino and have a hot streak at the blackjack tables,” said Donna Coleman of Sandown, N.H., who was grilling with her husband, Calvin, outside the stadium before the game; the couple have season tickets. “I think more people would come with us, say people who didn’t have tickets. They would be more apt to tailgate with us; then we’d go to the game and they’d go off to the casino.”

“I think it’s great for the people in this area,” said Brianne O’Meara, a tailgater and self-professed blackjack fan from Easthampton, Mass., a town that neighbors another proposed casino site in the western part of Massachusetts. “The locals are worried about the traffic ... but they need to accept change.”

“I’ve been to Steve Wynn’s casino out in Vegas ... it’s going to be done really well. I don’t think the town has anything to worry about,” said Mark Densmore of Gardner, a town in central Massachusetts, who also attended the Patriots game on Sunday. “The (residents) have learned to live with (football games) ... so they could learn to live with the casino.”

But that’s what local residents are afraid of.

“We have to plan our day out when they have a home game ... even to get out of the driveway,” said Nancy Whitney, who grew up in Foxborough.

But her main concerns are the other kinds of traffic that she said could come to town on the heels of a casino, such as crime, drugs, and prostitution.

“This New Year’s Eve, I was at Mohegan Sun, and we came back horrified by all the undesirable people and activity ... I just thought, ‘oh my goodness, this is going to be in our town,’ ” Whitney said. “I’m not opposed to gambling. I just do not want it in my back yard.”

It’s Connecticut casinos Mohegan Sun (which sponsors one of the biggest billboards outside Gillette Stadium) and Foxwoods — not Las Vegas — that are the standard everyone here compares a potential Massachusetts casino to, whether they fear the clientele a casino might attract, or have hopes for the revenues they might claim.

The giant casinos are to some a desirable destination and to others an eyesore on an otherwise bleak stretch of highway in a state most Massachusetts residents would only otherwise visit en route to New York.

Either way, it’s not what Wynn is planning.

“You have to look at the total project,” said Board of Selectmen Chairman Larry Harrington, as he described the rough sketches of Wynn’s idea: glass windows incorporating Foxborough’s wooded landscape as part of the scene, family-friendly areas and a casino so recessed into the structure as to be completely avoidable by anyone who didn’t want to see it.

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Larry Harrington, chairman of Foxborough's board of selectmen, sits at his kitchen table and explains why he thinks the Kraft-Wynn casino proposal deserves to be heard out by the town residents and why the tax revenue it would bring would be a boost to the town.

A letter Wynn recently sent to Foxborough residents said it would be “a resort destination with the character of Foxborough at its heart.”

Harrington, a Raytheon executive when he’s not running town business, was in the minority when Foxborough’s five-member board of selectmen voted 3-to-2 last week to send Kraft and Wynn a nonbinding “thanks but no thanks” letter, signaling the town isn’t interested in the proposal.

Hundreds of residents crowded a high school auditorium to voice their objections to the project. But Harrington wonders if they’re not drowning out thousands more residents in town who might want to hear things out.

There are about 11,000 voters in the town, but only about 2,000 have made their opinions, for or against the casino, known.

Harrington has a strong pitch to make to the undecideds: Not only would casino owners cover the added police and public service costs that such a project would bring, but it would bring jobs and tax revenue — enough to pay off the town’s $100 million debt and reduce property taxes for residents by 25 percent on day one.

“Foxborough’s a small town ... people here are taxed to the max already,” Harrington said. “Seniors and young families especially, they could use the help.”

But Foxborough, while it hasn’t been immune to the recession, isn’t suffering like Las Vegas. Median income and median home values in the town are well above state averages, which are well above national averages; and many town residents are concerned that the introduction of a casino will do more to damage that status than it will boost their economic well-being.

“It’s going to bring down property values, and bring an influx of low-wage jobs,” said Kirstin Stone, a mother of four who just moved to Foxborough. Had they known about the seriousness of the casino proposal, Stone said, they would have crossed Foxborough off their list of potential places to live — and plan to look for a way out if the casino is approved for construction.

“It changes the feeling of our town, and you can’t put a price tag on that,” she said.

Neither is everyone convinced by the jobs argument.

When it legalized casino gambling, Massachusetts approved the construction of three regular casinos, and one racino — a racetrack also offering slot machines. Plainville, down Route 1, has expressed an interest in the racino, while Suffolk Downs, a horse racing track within Boston city limits, is angling for the casino that Wynn and Kraft are trying to site at Foxborough.

“No matter if this is built in South Boston or Foxborough, those jobs are going to be there,” said Mark Sullivan, a selectman who started out the month of December in favor of hearing Wynn’s proposal but changed his mind when the board voted it down.

Sullivan, who owns a small construction company, said he even went to Kraft asking him to withdraw the proposal because it was “tearing (the) town apart.” Kraft had said early on that he would not stuff a project into Foxborough that the townspeople didn’t approve of; but according to Sullivan, wanted to hear from more town residents before considering a change of mind.

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Douglas and Nancy Whitney and their dog, Zoey, at the kitchen table in their house, which is on a bypass road in Foxborough. They vehemently oppose construction of a casino -- he for moral reasons, she because of the crime, drugs, prostitution and traffic she believes it will bring to the town.

Kraft and Wynn were supposed to appear at a meeting with Foxborough residents on Jan. 10. That has been scrapped since town selectmen voted against a casino, and since no written, detailed proposal for the site exists yet. The earliest date the town could organize a wider referendum on the question is May.

“Once it’s here ... we have no control over what happens,” Sullivan said, explaining that even if the casino helped Foxborough assume the costs of running the establishment, the town would have to relinquish oversight and control of the area to the state gaming commission for the duration of the lease: 75 years. “We’re not the only town fighting this. We’re just the most popular town because we have one of 32 NFL franchises in the country.”

That anchor of an NFL team is doubtless a major incentive to Kraft and Wynn, who has said he wants the casino and resort complex to draw customers from across the country and globe.

“Who sits in Europe and says, ‘Hey, for our vacation, I’m going to go to Foxborough’? ” asked Doug Whitney, husband of Nancy, who described himself as “morally opposed” to a casino.

The unlikeliness of Foxborough becoming a destination resort like Wynn’s properties in Las Vegas may be the one point on which both opponents and proponents of the project agree.

“It would never turn into Las Vegas. It’s impossible,” said Todd Alperin, a Patriots fan from New Hampshire who was in favor of constructing the casino. “(In Massachusetts) we just got to buy beer on Sundays a few years ago. So I don’t think you have to worry about that.”

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