Why Casinos are Becoming Like Landfills

Americans still love to gamble. They just don't want casinos near where they live

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Milford, Massachusetts at the holidays looks a lot like Bedford Falls, the fictional setting of the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Settled in 1662, the town of 27,000 still has working farms, its own daily newspaper, a baseball diamond behind the American Legion Hall and an annual picnic. On Memorial and Veteran’s days, parades run down a Main Street lined with white wooden churches and historic buildings made of red brick and locally quarried pink granite.

But it’s visions of Pottersville, the film’s alternate-universe world of greed, strip clubs, pawnshops, and hopelessness that have been on residents’ minds this season.

Wary of increased crime and traffic and depressed property values, Milford voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal for a $1 billion, 24-hour casino in November, becoming the sixth Massachusetts community to say no since voters statewide opened the way for three slot parlors or casinos in 2011.

“It didn’t take long to be convinced that this was not good for a small town,” says Steve Trettel, co-chair of the group Casino-Free Milford. “If you want to get right down to the root of it, that’s really it.”

While there’s been no slowdown in the pace at which states continue to approve adding or expanding casinos and slot machine parlors, they are starting to run into trouble finding places to put them.

In addition to the cities and towns in Massachusetts, which included a neighborhood in Boston, new or expanded gambling venues have been voted down in Portland, Oregon, Newport, Rhode Island and Biddeford, Lewiston, and Washington County, Maine. In early December, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick filed suit to block a native-American tribe from opening a casino on toney Martha’s Vineyard.

Across the nation, community and business interests are pushing back against the possibility of new casinos. In Central Florida, powerful interests including the Walt Disney Company, intent on preserving the region’s reputation as a family destination, have organized to prevent the state legislature from adding casinos there. Even in South Florida, which has been more accepting of gambling, local officials are raising concerns about plans to expand an existing casino operated by a Native American tribe, citing the potential for spillover traffic and crime.

A federal application submitted by another Native American tribe to build a casino in the upstate New York town Union Springs is being fought by a coalition that includes the state’s senior Senator, Chuck Schumer, on the grounds that it would bring unfair competition for local businesses. Even Massachusetts Governor Patrick, who signed the bill to legalize casinos there, has said that he would vote against one if it were ever proposed for the Berkshires town where he has a second home.

This resistance is not because Americans don’t want to gamble. In the last 10 years, the nationwide revenue from casino gambling has grown from $29 billion to more than $37 billion, according to the American Gaming Association, which represents the casino industry.

Massachusetts residents alone spent an estimated $850 million last year in casinos in neighboring states, according to the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. And 61 percent of them still like the idea of having casinos in the state, a survey by the Western New England University Polling Institute found.

They just don’t appear to want gambling near where they live. The same poll found that 55 percent of Bay State adults oppose casinos in their own communities.

“There is definitely some of that ‘not in my back yard’ going on,” says David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “It seems that people are comfortable with the idea of casinos, but once they get into the specifics of, this is where it’s going to go and this is what it’s going to look like and this is how it’s going to affect my commute, they may be having second thoughts.”

Not every community is hostile to casinos. Several in Massachusetts have voted to allow them, including one on the site of a former chemical plant and one at a former greyhound racing track. In Philadelphia and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, casinos have been approved to replace a hazardous waste site and an abandoned factory.

“What’s clearly going on here is that the communities that have approved these are much poorer communities” than the likes of Milford, says Richard McGowan, a professor of economics at Boston College and a casino expert. When they consider the alternatives—“a prison, a nuclear power plant—most people think that casinos overall are good for a community when they replace things that are tired or old,” says Bob Jarvis, a gaming expert and law professor at Nova Southeastern Law School in Florida.

Other casinos are in largely nonresidential neighborhoods of cities such as New Orleans, on remote tribal land free from the authority of voters and elected local officials, or in rural areas. But as more are proposed in densely populated states, gaming experts say, finding places to put them is becoming more contentious.

“Overall, people are not uncomfortable with gaming,” says Steve Rittvo, a principal with the casino consulting firm the Innovation Project Group. “But people also realize that you don’t necessarily need to be the host community to get that spinoff of the impacts of it.”