Today’s gamble: Casino project underway across Mystic River

An artist's rendering of the Wynn Boston Harbor resort and casino, slated to open June 2019. (Wynn Boston Harbor)

Under the Massachusetts Gaming Act of 2011, the state permits the operation of one slot parlor and up to three destination resort casinos, each located in a distinct region of the stateQuestion 1 on today’s Massachusetts ballot, “Expand Slot Machine Gaming” initiative, seeks to add an additional slot machine in Massachusetts.

Regardless of the outcome of this ballot question, however, Tufts will soon be affected by the opening of a casino in its backyard.

Wynn Boston Harbor is scheduled to open in June 2019 in Everett, Mass., just across the Mystic River from Somerville, according to the executive director of brand marketing for Wynn Resorts Greg John. The project, along with MGM Springfield, a $950 million project expected to open in 2018 in Springfield, Mass., hold the state’s two casino resort licenses. 

Over the course of 2015, Wynn Boston Harbor faced opposition from local government, initially from Boston and then from Somerville, in its construction plans for the casino. Much of the pushback in Somerville came from Mayor Joseph Curtatone, who has campaigned heavily against the casino. According to an Aug. 22 Boston Globe article, the City of Somerville spent approximately $400,000 in total in legal fees to fight the project, starting in July 2015.

Curtatone’s main concerns with the project related to the potential environmental impacts and transportation issues due to increased traffic going to and from the casino, but the city ultimately reached an agreement with Wynn in August 2016.

“The city of Somerville successfully resolved a number of our community’s core concerns regarding the Wynn casino project,” Curtatone released in a statement in August. “While we did not get everything we asked for, the appeal did yield significant and meaningful results for our residents, so we feel the process worked.”

John agreed that Wynn worked to ameliorate Somerville’s concerns, providing $58 million to improve road infrastructure in the surrounding area as part of its construction plans. A portion of this money will go toward the revamping of Boston’s Sullivan Square, located near the casino site.

“Most of that money will be prior to us opening,” John explained. “This includes a $25 million payment that will support a long-term plan for Sullivan Square. In Sullivan Square, we’re doing an $11 million pre-opening and $25 million are going toward long-term solutions, which the City of Boston is working on.”

Wynn will also be hosting a ferry service to and from the Boston Harbor to its casino and subsidizing $208 million to improve the infrastructure of the MBTA Orange Line, according to John. Additionally, the company will install a pedestrian bridge that would go over Mystic River and connect to an Orange Line Station. 

“[Wynn] will be the first private developer to subsidize the operations of any MBTA [project],” John said.

Though Somerville ultimately agreed to the construction of the casino, Tufts Associate Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Justin Hollander said he believes Curtatone’s concerns had merit and that the project should therefore be of interest — or concern — to the Tufts community.

“The literature is pretty clear that casinos have a range of negative impacts on the surrounding communities and by any reasonable definition, the Medford campus is part of the community that this casino will be impacting,” Hollander said.

He added that when the casino is built, it will likely promote a wider acceptance of gambling because of the increased accessibility of the activity.

Regarding the ballot question that Massachusetts voters are deciding today, Hollander said its passing would create concerns for the future of gambling in Massachusetts.

“If this referendum passes, it will open the floodgates to much more widespread gambling,” he said.

Support for the referendum is leaning toward “no,” with 57 percent of voters against the new referendum, according to an Oct. 27 Boston Globe article. 

Professor Anamarija Frankić of the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston) said she urges the people of Massachusetts to look at the bright side of the construction of Wynn Boston Harbor, which began in August and will continue regardless of the outcome of Question 1. Currently serving as an advisor on the board of the Mystic River Watershed Restoration InitiativeFrankić is also the founding director of the Green Harbors Project at UMass Boston. 

She said that while different organizations and individuals have been trying to clean up the Mystic River, the construction of Wynn’s casino could be a plus for the river and its surrounding communities, because Wynn has agreed to clean up the area.

“There has been a larger community … working in the last decade to address the hotspots of pollution that are degrading the water quality not just for natural species but also for humans,” Frankić said. “We live in Boston, one of the most powerful cities in the world, and we still have one of the dirtiest rivers in the United States.”

A significant aspect of the construction of Wynn Boston Harbor involved spending $30 million cleaning up the entire area, according to John.

“There are not many opportunities for someone to open up a large, beautiful waterfront in an urban setting,” he said. “In most major cities, every waterfront is already taken, already used. We are opening up a gorgeous waterfront that most people do not know exists.”

Frankić said the site used to be home to a Monsanto Chemical Company plant, which caused environmental and public health problems for Everettt residents.

“[The area] has every single unhealthy polluted type of industry in the Lower Mystic,” she said. “You have the largest scrap metal industry there [along with] all the boats coming in and out with oil and gas.”

It is the opportunity for clean up that brings Frankić to ultimately support the casino project.

“If we have such a degraded environment right in front of our noses and nobody wants to touch it, if having someone like Wynn Resorts is going to improve the condition, not only for the local environment but for the whole watershed, then we [should] embrace the opportunity that somebody wants to clean it up,” she said.

According to John, Wynn will also install a 6.5 acre park that will be open to the public.

“The way we designed this building is so that the actual gaming area is to the side, so families can go use the outside area and people can go in to use the hotel, shop or dine and never see a gaming machine or gaming table if they choose not to,” he said.

Hollander said that while the construction of the casino is essentially a done deal at this point, community leaders can still work to ensure that it does not lead to more gambling in the area, including within the Tufts community.

“There are a lot of things that advising, guidance offices and different mental health services on campus can marshall their efforts into pushing against the gambling effort,” he said. “What we can do is make the best of [the casino and] plan ahead to ameliorate some of the concerns.”