July 29, 2007

Casinos and Livable Communities: Middleborough’s choice

I'm a firm believer that improved streetscapes, walkability and other such amenities don't hinder economic development but actually improve local economies. After all, retail space is a lot more pricey along Newbury Street than suburban Route 9, and housing per square foot is way more expensive in Boston's North End than most Rte. 495 exurbs. However, I'm realistic enough to acknowledge that sometimes the economic bottom line and livable community issues collide.

Such is the case in Middleborough, where the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe wants to build a billion-dollar casino resort complex. The resort would undoubtedly bring lots of money and jobs to the community, but would also change the character of the town. There will be a lot more tax revenue, but also a lot more traffic; there will be more "entertainment" available, but also more problems that inevitably come with drinking, gambling, and huge increases in short-term visitors.

"Since casinos opened in two small, rural Connecticut towns in the 1990s, there has been a sharp increase in local traffic, police calls, and drunken driving arrests, according to a Globe analysis, and the changes have spilled over into neighboring towns as well," the Boston Globe reported recently. In fact, it tends to be those neighboring towns that really get the shaft -- lots more traffic, higher concentrations of people passing through which naturally leads to more traffic-related problems like congestion, accidents and drunk driving arrests, yet no extra tax revenue. It's one of the legacies of a region that clings to local government to finance so many important things that these days have effects far beyond local borders. (In many cases, town officials actually have incentive to site huge projects at their borders, so the negative effects spread to other communities while the town gets to keep all of the money. )

Have you ever been to Foxwoods? I was there once for a business event, and found it kind of depressing if you don't happen to enjoy gambling. I sometimes find Las Vegas depressing also (I've been there several times for tech conferences), but at least you have the option of walking around there (assuming it's not 110 degrees, that is). At Foxwoods, I felt trapped if I wanted to, um, actually take a walk. Yet because of the nature of a casino's main activity, many communities don't want to integrate casinos with traditional downtown environments. So you end up with a separate, parallel city-within-a-city arising, one that has little connection to its host community, and thus no interest in the fate of things like surrounding residential and commercial areas. And in the long run, I don't see it as a good thing when a community's principle revenue-producer is divorced from the rest of the community.

Middleborough residents voted for the casino, some because they felt the complex is inevitable anyway and they want their town to at least get some money in exchange. It's up to them to decide if the financial windfall is worth the change in their community. Unfortunately, residents of neighboring towns had no say in the vote, and many will be as affected as those in Middleborough while getting fewer if any financial benefits. Those who oppose the plan now have to turn their attention to the state and federal approval processes.

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