By Brendan Clogston -
As Revere marches toward their second and increasingly contentious referendum on the Mohegan Sun development at Suffolk Downs, a Pennsylvania official who saw the construction of a Mohegan Sun facility came to Revere at the mayor’s request to share his experience.
Corey O’Brien, commissioner of Lackawanna County in Pennsylvania – where Mohegan Sun opened a casino at Pocono Downs almost a decade ago – met with press and local government officials in Revere on February 17. In all instances, he was nothing but emphatic in his enthusiasm for Mohegan Sun and the casino’s impact on his community.
“I was skeptical,” said O’Brien. “I was nervous. I didn’t know what to think. We hadn’t had gaming, and I’m not into gaming, but they were coming. All I knew was that they were promising 800 [permanent] jobs. And let me tell you: they under-promised and over-delivered”
“I’ve seen this movie,” he continued. “It ends very well. The movie ends better than you think.”
O’Brien described his county as one which had “helped to fuel the industrial revolution” but had since “lost [their] way.” Pocono Downs, a racetrack formerly of great significance, had fallen into “grave despair.”
The Mohegan Sun development, he argued, revitalized the community. New hotels were built where there had previously been empty lots. Originally promised at the site were 800 new permanent jobs. After then-Governor Ed Rendell signed a bill in 2010 legalizing table games in the state, the casino expanded and has since created 1,700 jobs. A new hotel connected to the casino floor was also opened in December 2013.
“They took it from the ashes and made it really one of the finest tracks around once again,” said O’Brien. “When they opened their facility, their facility mirrored our heritage. It was a celebration of our heritage. It made us all feel very, very comfortable. And by the time they opened it up, we knew everybody who was involved with Mohegan Sun. For the two years before they opened, they were interwoven into the fabric of our local community.”
O’Brien suggested that the casino’s true value to his community was not economic, but in “intangible” benefits, such as the advice offered by Mohegan executives to local Chambers of Commerce or cultural contributions. He described the casino’s executive team as becoming immediately involved in the areas nonprofits and chamber of commerce, for instance financing a local nonprofit which eventually became the free equine-based therapy organization, Marley’s Mission.
Mayor Rizzo stated that he was grateful for and “encouraged” by O’Brien’s perspective. “I really did want to hear from a counterpart [who] has already gone through the experience,” Rizzo said. “He has been able to shed so much light. We’ve our due diligences, we’ve done all these different studies, we’ve studied our studies. But at the end of it all … I have the same crystal ball that you have, and it’s so encouraging (as somebody who’s been such a staunch proponent) to know that I’m going down the right road.”
The proposed development, which saw a referendum pass in Revere last November with 61 percent of the vote and has another vote looming on February 25, has become increasingly controversial in the city, particularly among the local clergy. On Sunday, February 16, leaders in the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim communities held a prayer gathering in opposition to the project, describing the gambling industry as “predatory” and arguing that it will bring increased crime, addiction, traffic and bankruptcy to the city.
Rizzo spoke with frustration about the clergy’s protest, arguing that they were ultimately undermining the economic futures of their faithful. “They have their food bank every week and dozens of families line up outside,” he said. “They’re out there trying to stop these jobs from coming to Revere. They could be handing them a job application as opposed to a bag of groceries, helping these families help themselves, but instead they’re trying to drive these jobs to a neighboring community. It’s beyond my wildest comprehension how they can do that. … It’s incredibly disturbing to me.”
“This could be a tremendous catalyst” he continued. “It’s those ancillary and collateral opportunities and investments that are really going to transform the city. This one project will not transform the city; it’s everything else that’s going to emanate from that project. I’ve seen the developers coming in and out of my office with plans largely contingent upon the success of this plan at Suffolk Downs.