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(NECN: Peter Howe, Everett, Mass.) - Las Vegas magnate Steve Wynn’s plans to turn the abandoned chemical-plant site on the north banks of the Mystic River into a $1.2 billion casino resort have made an artifact of history the focus of what is today literally a billion-dollar brawl. As it turns out, there is a little spit of Boston on the Everett side of the river.
Where Wynn’s resort sits relative to this Boston spit could determine whether Boston is, under the terms of Massachusetts’ legalized-gambling law, a “host community" entitled to veto power over the casino, or merely a “surrounding community” that would still be given significant input into mitigation of traffic and other problems associated with casino construction.
After months of back and forth between the two sides, the state Gaming Commission on Wednesday ordered the Wynn Resorts group and Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration to come to a compromise by Friday on whether Boston should be considered a host or surrounding community, or else the Gaming Commission will step in and make a ruling itself.
Gaming Commission chairman Steve Crosby said the two sides’ failure to come to agreement on what should ostensibly be a provable geographic fact is making the whole process of deciding who should win the sole Eastern Massachusetts casino license appear to be "disorganized and suspect and political."
The Everett-Boston boundary dispute comes as there has been other big news on the two other proposed Eastern Masssachusetts casinos: Boston officials agreed the city vote on whether to approve the Suffolk Downs host-community agreement will take place on Nov. 5, the same day as the final election for Boston mayor, and selectmen in Milford voted 2-1 to approve and put before town voters a host community agreement with Foxwoods for a resort casino on the east side of Interstate 495 between Routes 16 and 85 at the Holliston line. Milford officials expect on Monday to formally sign the agreement, which will pay the town $32 million up front followed by annual payments of $31 million after that if Foxwoods wins the license and builds the casino.
In the Everett dispute, Everett Historical Commission chairman Mike Matarazzo, who is also the city clerk, said the genesis of the issue goes back to 1649, when what was then the Town of Malden separated from the Town of Charlestown. The village of South Malden became Everett in 1870, and Charlestown became part of Boston in 1874.
But 364 years ago, long before those municipal realignments took effect, when there was a one-cent ferry operating from the north banks of the Mystic to the south, Matarazzo said, “Someone was forethinking enough to keep both sides in [what became] Boston's hands … If you control both sides of that river, then you controlled commerce.’’
That meant Charlestown had full financial oversight of the ferry, which was replaced in 1787 by the Malden Bridge, an ancestor of today’s Route 99, Alford Street.
“They build a bridge, and now that land becomes even more valuable to Boston, because if you own so many feet on each side of the bridge,’’ Matarazzo said, “you get piece of the taxes and tolls, and the toll is significant. In 1787, it was 47 cents per round-trip, which is a day's pay, even more than a day's pay’’ in contemporary value.
So, is this piece of Boston that was the north ferry terminus and later north end of the Malden Bridge really inside the Wynn casino parcel? Boston argued Wednesday to the Gaming Commission it was, with pictures showing red circles around a Wynn rendering showing a landscaped riverbank south of the actual casino resort – but not claiming any of the building itself is in Boston. Menino has, of course, been outspoken in preferring the Suffolk Downs casino bid win the license.
But Wynn’s land surveyors submitted maps to the Gaming Commission showing the entire casino resort and its access road from Route 99 are clearly on the Everett side of the Everett-Boston border.
Thursday, a Wynn representative told me Wynn Resorts would have no comment to the media until after the Friday deadline to respond to the Gaming Commission. However, an insider familiar with the project also told me if there’s any credible evidence any part of the current project is on Boston land, Wynn will simply tweak the project’s contours to ensure it remains 100 percent inside Everett, so Boston won’t gain “host community” control over the site.
Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce said in an e-mail: “Unfortunately, the Wynn development team chooses to redraw lines on a map rather than go to the people of Charlestown for a vote on their proposal. If you are talking fairness and the intentions of the law then Charlestown should have a vote, just like Revere’’ will have a vote on the Suffolk Downs casino (along with the East Boston Ward 1 of Boston) because part of the Suffolk Downs property is within Revere.
How this will be resolved won’t be clear until Friday. It’s conceivable it could even wind up in state Land Court litigation, which could well jeopardize both the Wynn and Suffolk plans and put Foxwoods Milford in a stronger position to win the license the Gaming Commission has said it wants to award by next spring.
But in a classic New England way, it’s a reminder of how a 2013 casino control fight can turn on the location of a ferry in 1649 and a bridge in 1787.
“The land was already there,’’ Matarazzo said, “and I suppose Boston and Everett, no one bothered to talk about it after that.’’ Then he added with a laugh and a smile: “Until recently."
With videographer Mike Bellwin.