Monday, November 29, 2010

Look to Bethlehem

Anytime someone suggests that a casino in Fall River could have more negative effects than positive ones it seems the answer is to look to Bethlehem. Mention that a casino could bring more crime, or more social issues and the answer is look to Bethlehem.

Oh this isn't some sort of indicator to have some religious faith, no instead the example that I've heard various city councilors and local radio hosts and a few pro-casino folks cite is Bethlehem Pennsylvania.

Now every time I've heard this I've ignored it. Even if things WERE working out fantastic with a new casino in Bethlehem that was simply ONE example versus multiple studies and other cities where casinos have had negative impacts. However, now with it clear that the Mayor is unwilling to let this drop or to even slow down and take a more cautious approach I figured it was time to look into this for myself.

What I found was that while the casino has 5,000 slots it employs 750-800 full time workers with benefits. In fact the article that I found to be the most objective stated that no casino in Pennsylvania employs more than 1,200. Now slots isn't the all mighty indicator on employment but it does suggest a certain size casino. By comparison, the proposed Fall River casino is to have 2,500 slots. Does this indicate 3,000-5,000 jobs that been touted so much by the administration or closer to 325-400 full time jobs that a comparison with Pennsylvania would indicate?

So looking to Bethlehem what I get is doubt about the number of jobs a Fall River casino will bring.

Still Bethlehem's mayor is pleased that the anticipated drawbacks of a casino haven't happened. He's quick to point out that crime hasn't gone up. (In fact as of last Spring it had gone down.) Traffic hasn't gotten worse and the character of the city hasn't changed. This all sounds great, but if you read into it a bit more you start to wonder. Crime hasn't increased and the mayor believes this is because more people are working but also before the casino was built there was a ramp up of the police force. (perhaps expecting the worst?) Traffic hasn't gotten worse but (as we'll touch on later) the casino hasn't been the economic powerhouse it was thought to be and a proposed hotel hadn't been built.

So looking to Bethlehem what I get is the character hasn't changed but the casino has not been the overwhelming success it was thought to be. They still don't have a hotel, most patrons are daytrippers (or local). What if Fall River's casino doesn't meet expectations? Will we be so lucky crime-wise? We're already the 4th most dangerous city in Massachusetts!

The Mayor says he wants Bethlehem to be the place where people say they did casinos right and the article ticks of a short list of what went into that approach:
1. Find the right site
2. Find the right operator
3. Get the zoning right
4. Work with your neighbors
5. Figure out your infrastructure needs in advance

Here in Fall River:
1. No other site has been seriously considered
2. No other operator has been courted
3. No discussion has taken place on what zoning changes may be appropriate
4. Surrounding communities have not been taken into consideration or even part of the discussion
5. No discussion of the impact on infrastructure has taken place.

Now, while Bethlehem is more than breaking even the article states they're not making any serious money. The article also says that due to economy that hotel construction was put on hold. (No hotel?? Maybe you can reserve a manger...after all it IS Bethlehem!)

So I look to Bethlehem and see that actual revenue may be a lot less than what we're thinking. It also isn't too hard to think that if that's the case the proposal for Fall River could be seriously scaled back.

Now what's interesting about the casino in Bethlehem is that it's built on the site of a former steel mill. This was something the city pushed for because it would jump start some revitalization of an existing site that needed to be cleaned up. The development was also considerate of the city's history and the legacy of the site itself. I think this one of the reasons why the casino hasn't changed the character of the city because it was designed to blend and fit it. Now when various suitors talked about building a casino there was a lot of interest in building it in the outskirts of the city. This was something Bethlehem expressed no interest in what-so-ever. Bethlehem specifically wanted the development to revitalize an existing piece to the city and felt that a casino on the outskirts of town would simply harm the city's downtown.

So when I look to Bethlehem I see a city that worked to avoid a proposal like the one our Mayor is so aggressively pushing. I see a city that used casino development as a way to spur revitalization, not just economic but urban revitalization. I also see a development that very aware of not hurting the existing business environment. (In fact, this reminds me a lot of New Bedford's NStar proposal which I've always thought made more sense than what was being pushed here...)

Despite the intent, the data so far indicates that casino patrons eat at the casino and shop at the casino and very little of that business seems to trickle down to the rest of the community, again despite the original efforts to encourage it to.

To combat the worry about an increase in crime and negative effects on the city, Bethlehem hired additional officers ramping up before the casino opened. They also changed zoning so that no adult entertainment, pawn shops, and checking cashing establishments could set up near the casino.

Again, has any discussion about zoning in Fall River? Has there been any effort to ramp up our police staff? Yes we've hired back officers but I'm not sure we're even back to full staffing levels.

Bethlehem is also sharing a portion of its hosting fees with other nearby communities with the idea that they too would also share in any negative effects.

Fall River hasn't made, nor I doubt will make any such suggestion to do the same.

While Bethlehem is yet to realize any of the tourism dollars they hoped for they may already be seeing signs of social issues. Compulsive gambling issues seem to be on the rise in Pennsylvania. Calls to a statewide hot-line have doubled since the first casino opened in PA just 4 years ago. Also the age old argument that a casino in Massachusetts will simply rake in the money destined for Connecticut doesn't hold water in Pennsylvania's experience. What their experience suggests is that if the casino is just a mile away folks with addictive tendencies will go more often and lose more money than if they had to travel 100 miles. The social issues this causes become ours as a community to deal with.

So when I look to Bethlehem, the shining example of how casinos can work I see that it's not quite the bright light advocates want to paint it out to be.

The source I relied on most heavily for this post is an article from CommonWealth Magazine. It is a pretty balanced look and is well worth a read. You can find it here.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!

When 10 taxpayers formed a group to stop the land sale for a proposed casino I had a conversation with a friend and predicted that we would soon hear voices saying that these folks were stopping progress and keeping jobs from coming to Fall River. And sure enough I've heard, read, and had conversations where that very viewpoint has been expressed. I further said sooner or later someone would suggest suing the ten taxpayers because they were stopping job development. Sure enough I've seen those comments pop up too!

This whole issue has been framed as being about jobs. You're either for the casino or against jobs. Mayor Flanagan looks at the opposition as a "war on jobs" Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.

How do you tell someone who is out of work and at risk of losing their home that jobs aren't important? How do you tell someone who can't put food on the table that we need to think "long-term"?

What's the old saying "desperate times call for desperate measures"? Well times are tough and people want jobs now. Unlike some I have no doubts that if this were brought to the ballot as either a binding or non-binding referendum it would pass.

You can almost hear the rally: "what do we want? JOBS!!! When do we want them? NOW!!!!

But for some reason all these people who are crying for a casino don't seem to understand that it's NOT going to bring jobs now. It's not going to bring jobs for YEARS! All the arguments that a biopark won't bring jobs for years seems silly when the alternative won't bring anything immediately either, if at all. Even if the city is able to somehow have the injunction against the land sale overturned, even if the injunction never took place, the land sale does not create jobs because you can't build a casino there!

Everyone in favor acts as though legalized gambling is a given, well it's not!

Already you have Governor Patrick publicly stating that a gaming bill is no longer a priority. You also have Speaker DeLeo saying the same thing. Even if they change course and suddenly but this back on the front burner there is no guarantee this is going to pass. It just FAILED to pass because nobody could come up with a compromise! Oh, of course we have the brilliant Plan B, where the Wampanoag's will be able to put the land into trust and no longer have to deal with whether or not gaming is legal is Massachusetts because this will be Indian land. Well that isn't a given either. The tribe's tie to the land seems to be nonexistent and it's been said that other applications are of a higher priority. Of course let's not forget that if for some reason the tribe WAS able to go this route they don't have to worry about gaming being legal, or the environmental protections on the land, or labor laws, or any other protections we take for granted that wouldn't apply to Indian land. Oh yes, our crack legal minds will make sure to carve out the best possible deal for Fall River to make sure our interests are protected. Bullshit. This administration is so desperate to see this happen that they'd give away your first born if that is what the tribe demanded. I have zero faith that our leadership will protect our interests and you should too. Of course brilliantly as a casino faces all of these obstacles we'll spend thousands of dollars fighting an injunction because if we win we can then be stopped by the fact that it's not legal, if it were Fall River might not be picked, that there are no guarantees that the land will ever be put into Indian trust. Flanagan is spending money we don't have to win a battle, and not the war!

So meanwhile, injunction or no injunction we sit and wait. We wait to see if gaming gets legalized. We wait to see if the land becomes Sovereign land. Meanwhile weeds are growing on 300 acres of land and no jobs are being created. Even IF gaming is legalized in the state we still have no guarantee that Fall River would be one of the selected sites. So we wait and wait some more. If the land sale does go through well the RDA can help UMass Dartmouth secure a parcel for the Bio-facility (it's not longer a park) and they can PAY Ken Fiola. Well that's good it's great to know that if we sell off some of this land we can at least RETAIN a job. It would be awful to see Kenny looking for work.

In the meantime as the days, weeks, months, YEARS trickle by, this will all be time that the biopark, because it was shovel ready, could have been built and developed and marketed and maybe start attracting some job opportunities here. Yes, a lot of those jobs would be higher education jobs but there would also be tons of jobs that wouldn't require a college degree. And it's not just jobs.

Oh there's the cry again: Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!

Jobs are important but so is development. You can put all sorts to people back to work in Fall River but if the city is going to prosper we need more revenue and that requires development! Good example, Meditech now plans to build a huge facility in Freetown, job-wise whether it's here or there probably doesn't make a huge difference. However, Freetown is going to get a real estate tax for that new development. If the Biopark had never been disrupted maybe Meditech would have built here in Fall River and we would be getting all that tax revenue.

Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!

Have a conversation with anyone who is in favor of a casino and tell them you're not and they say don't you want jobs? Don't you know we need jobs? But hold on, it's not going to bring jobs today, or tomorrow. In fact it could be costing us jobs because we've totally derailed a project that we've worked for a decade to bring here for one that we can't guarantee will ever see the light of day because it faces ½ dozen hurdles. It's not as simple as a casino = jobs and no casino means you're against. How much time have we spent discussing the negative issues? What will this do to existing business? What will this do the city's crime rate? What social issues will this bring to the city? I'm told that one city councilor said that people are adults and responsible for their own choices. THAT just isn't true. We as a society shoulder a large burden for the choices adults make and then take no responsibility for. This is particularly true in communities like Fall River!

Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!

That's all I hear! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!

Whether you're for this or not, do yourself a favor, grab one of our elected officials and ask them how many people will be put back to work in the next 6 months because of the casino? If you don't include LAWYERS, I'm pretty sure the answer is ZERO. Seriously go ask one of our city councilors, go ask Flanagan, or Fiola, or any member of the RDA. How many people will be put back to work in the next year? 18 months? 24 months? And if they give you an answer question it! If they tell you ground will be broken by the summer ask how? Ask how are we getting passed the legalization. How do we know when it MIGHT become sovereign land? They don't know! They can't tell you! And if you press every answer and just don't nod dumbly and walk away they're going to get mad at you asking. They're going to start throwing out "facts" that they can't back up and start making excuses. They'll blame these 10 taxpayers when the legislature failed to put a bill in front of the Governor that he would sign. They'll say the majority wants this, even though they have no facts to back that up. They'll tell you that a biopark wouldn't have put anybody to work either, when the fact is some construction could already be taking place and Fall River could possibly have had Meditech as one of the parks first tenants. Then they'll tell you we need the jobs, because they have no answers just buzzwords and rhetoric.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

King Philip Lunch to Stay Open?

I imagine the last few weeks have been very busy at King Philip Lunch. After the Herald ran a story at the end of last month saying that the Fall River staple would be closing after 61 years at the end of THIS month, I'm sure lots of folks have made the pilgrimage (fitting for Thanksgiving) to get that last dog or wimpy burger. I'm also sure that that the folks behind the counter have heard the same question over and over as they slap on the mustard and sauce: "Is Pete going to sell?"
I myself have made at least 4 trips in the last few weeks making sure to get a taste of Coney dogs, wimpy burgers and hot cheese sandwiches while I still can and each time I've visited I've asked some version of that very question. At first I was told that nope Pete was just going to lock the door. He didn't want to go through the hassle of a sale. Then I was told he was considering it. The third visit was even more encouraging there had been lots of interest and it seemed certain that someone would buy it. The last visit was the most encouraging of all, there has been lots of interest but one person has been very persistent and it seems that it is very likely that when Pete locks the door on his last day a new owner will unlock it the following morning. IF this is all true it's great news because that end of the city just wouldn't be the same with out a hot dog joint of its own.
So, if King Philip Lunch is sold, here's some advice for the new owners....
DON'T MONKEY AROUND WITH ANYTHING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Pete has been there for 61 years, he knows what he's doing and what works! Don't switch hot dogs or try to spice up the sauce (YOU ARE GETTING THE SAUCE RECIPE RIGHT???). Don't add a ton of new items to the menu. If I want a bigger selection I'll go to McGoverns. Don't try to make it look new and trendy. We LIKE it original, vintage and nostalgic.
Sure a little change might be OK. Feel free to touch up the paint and perhaps you can try out a new item or two but that's it!
And let Pete know the doors always open. Let him  pop in, serve a few if he wants, have one or two on the house. Let him talk about old times and chat away with old friends. After all he and Helen have seemed like extended family to a lot of people for a very long time.
Here's hoping that a sale does go through and the best of luck to some potential new owners.

Monday, November 01, 2010

A Question for the Candidate - The Wrap Up

A few weeks ago I attempted to reach out to a dozen candidates for various office with a simple question of why they were the best candidate for the people of Fall River.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the four candidates for Governor never acknowledged me. I did think Dr Stein might take any opportunity to get her message out there, or perhaps Mr. Cahill, but I didn't hear from either of them. I certainly didn't expect the Governor or Mr. Baker to respond especially considering how 'last minute' my request was. But it would have been nice.

I had much more success with the local races. Both Representative Mike Rodrigues and his opponent Derek Maksy took the time to respond. Oddly I heard from every candidate for state representative with the exception of David Rose. While Mr. Jacome (8th Bristol) and Representative Aguiar (7th Bristol) both responded to my emails, neither submitted a response to the question, considering that their opponents did, this was a bit disappointing. It's amusing that one candidate for the 6th Bristol, (Representative David Sullivan), one candidate for the 7th Bristol (CJ Ferry) and one for the 8th Bristol (Paul Schmid) submitted a response but their opponents didn't. It's like I batted .500 with each district!

And what about the responses? Well honestly I don't think any of the candidates who chose to respond really nailed it. What I wanted to see were responses that spoke specifically about issues affecting Fall River and ideas that the candidates had to address them. I wanted to see examples of how their leadership would be used to benefit our city. When candidates did touch upon these things it was usually with too much generality and not enough specifics. I was amused that some of the responses were crafted like a good debate answer, where the candidate manages to say what he or she wants no matter the question.

Still I give much credit, and many thanks to the candidates that took the time to respond, especially considering the late notice. I know I'm not considered a media outlet but that's part of what makes contacting these folks so interesting! Will they respond? My take on this is if they won't respond to me, chances are they won't respond to you either. Again out of all the local candidates I reached out to, only one didn't respond back.

Will any of this help you decide on who to vote for tomorrow? Chances are by now you've made up your mind. However if you're still on the fence maybe one of these responses will help you make your decision, or just that a particular candidate took the time to respond will help you make your decision. If that's the case then I'm glad this blog could be of service.