, Newburyport, MA

July 2, 2013

Board says no to casino

Selectmen vote against slots-only development


---- — SALISBURY — A 120,000-square-foot slots-only casino in not in the cards for Salisbury.

Selectmen voted 3 to 2 last night against trying to negotiate a hosting agreement with the Maryland real estate development company that wanted to build one on Route 110.

The vote came after a short discussion at a specially called selectmen’s meeting that started at 7 p.m. But it followed a 4:30 p.m. workshop that lasted for 90 minutes, where Baltimore-based Cordish Companies pulled out all the stops by bringing in architects, engineers and a lawyer to make the presentation in hopes of persuading selectmen not to reject the idea.

Conceptual drawings showed a roughly 120,000-square-foot, 1,250-machine casino, with three restaurants, a theater and five-story, 1,071-vehicle garage. The complex totaling 190,000 square feet was proposed for an 11-acre lot owned by Bruce Arakelian, and currently partially occupied by Vision Max cinema and the Sylvan Street Grille.

Salisbury had everything a casino needed, according to Cordish’s Director of Development Jeffrey Snyder: a great site, terrific access to major interstates and located on a state highway with proximity to moderately sized communities like Lawrence, Lowell, Methuen, Haverhill and Southern New Hampshire.

Residents also had a chance to speak, and Bob Carroll and Jim Dondero spoke against allowing the “slot parlor” in town, fearing it would lower home values, bring an unwanted impact to town, along with a type of business that was not of significant standard.

To have pursued the proposal, by July 25 selectmen would have had to negotiate and sign a hosting agreement that would delineate what Cordish would be required to do to protect residents, including how it would mitigate all the impacts the large development would bring to the community. The contract deadline was engraved in stone, because it’s only the first phase in the legal process required for locating a slots casino in the state.

The next deadline would have been Aug. 1, when selectmen would have to call for an Oct. 1 voter referendum, for residents to vote yes or no on the agreement. By law, the referendum could take place no sooner than 60 days after selectmen sign the hosting agreement.

If voters had approved the contract, Cordish, along with all other slot-casino contenders, would have had to submit their applications to the state gaming commission no later than Oct. 4. The state agency would choose one winner.

But Cordish went to other communities before coming to Salisbury, and that resulted in the last-minute, tight turnaround for contract negotiations that ultimately put the kibosh on the casino, along with its traffic problems.

Selectmen Don Beaulieu, Freeman Condon and Henry Richenburg said 17 days just wasn’t enough time to negotiate such an important contract with Cordish, for it had to protect the town from the impacts building a gambling establishment would bring. And the impact that was most feared was the enormous amount of additional traffic such a development would bring to already busy Route 110.

Plus, after finding a series of lawsuits online related to other Cordish casino projects in Florida and Maryland, Condon said he didn’t believe the promises Snyder made about mitigating traffic, job development and the roughly $2 million in annual revenues Cordish promised town coffers. And, Condon said, he didn’t believe that all the “negative impact” of the casino had been fully flushed out.

Condon told Snyder that the site is too small to hold such a development, the traffic problems it would create are insurmountable and that the “hold-the-gun-to-our-heads” 17-day contract deadline was unacceptable.

Beaulieu thanked Cordish for its presentation, but said the timing had always been a problem for him. Although he would have gone along if a majority had wanted to pursue negotiations, Beaulieu didn’t think success was likely.

“I personally do not believe a solid agreement can be reached in the time we have to reach it that would benefit the town as a whole,” Beaulieu said. “I just don’t think you can do it.”

Richenburg agreed.

“I think 17 days is an awful short time to negotiate a deal, even with the help of a consultant,” he said.

Selectmen Ed Hunt and Fred Knowles were more optimistic. Hunt and Knowles both wanted to pursue negotiations based on the sample contract Cordish had sent them. If it could be done, the townspeople would get a chance to decide in the referendum, they said.

“I think this is an opportunity for the town to get extra revenues,” Hunt said. “The people should have a chance to vote.”

Knowles said the selectmen should be willing to try to get a contract put together in 17 days, then let the people “decide what they want in their town.”

But in the end, Cordish won no jackpot in Salisbury last night. And as soon as selectmen voted the project down, Arakelian and local resident Gil Mederios started yelling at Beaulieu, Condon and Richenburg for rejecting it.

Arakelian, a Haverhill resident who might have made millions from selling or leasing his land to Cordish, told the three selectmen their tenure on the board was over, specifically advising Beaulieu not to bother to run again.

“Why don’t you just pack up your things and get the hell out,” Arakelian shouted. “You’re ... useless. I’m going to put up a digital sign on my property saying what you guys did.”

Mederios, whom selectmen have appointed to the town’s Liquor Licensing Commission, repeatedly yelled that the selectmen’s actions were “disgusting.”

“I’m going to put a petition together to recall you guys,” Mederios shouted as he left the auditorium.

Asked why he allowed the men to rant for so long, Richenburg, chairman of the board, said he thought he’d “just give them a chance to express themselves.”