NEW BEDFORD — Jamie Casey said he understands the need for jobs a casino could bring to employment-starved New Bedford, and the region. He gets it.
“What transcends jobs is quality of life,” said Casey, who leads a Christian ministry known as the Acts 29 Project in greater New Bedford and is on the pastoral team at Hope Evangelical Community Church in Dartmouth.
He said the ministry “deals a lot with addiction intervention,” through efforts including weekly recovery and “discipleship” meetings. He said while gambling addiction can be harder to track than drug and alcohol addiction, its impacts in SouthCoast are evident.
“Gambling is a major issue. It definitely destroys families and people lose their homes over it,” Casey said.
“Gambling can be very much an addiction for folks and can be very destructive to them as well as their families,” echoed Kathy Spear, area director for High Point Treatment Services, which provides substance abuse and mental health services in southeastern Massachusetts.
“People end up in debt, they need to re-mortgage, marriages end because of the financial stress,” Spear said.
Spear’s colleague, High Point director of clinical services Charles Carroll, said the presence of a casino doesn’t necessarily affect gambling addiction, though.
“All of the research that I found … indicated that there was absolutely no change or increase of gambling in the communities where casinos are available,” Carroll said Wednesday night, when he was a panelist for the casino forum at the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center in downtown New Bedford.
“That said, it doesn’t minimize the impact” casinos can have on communities, Carroll added.
Concerns about gambling addiction, effects on social services and people already close to the poverty line, and crime related to financial stresses have been prominent in SouthCoast casino conversations in recent months.
New Bedford residents will vote June 23 on the $650 million resort casino, hotel and conference center proposal by New York-based developer KG Urban Enterprises. The development is slated for the 43-acre, waterfront site of an abandoned NStar power plant, off MacArthur Drive and Route 18.
A $650 million Brockton proposal is New Bedford’s sole competition for the single resort casino license the state can allocate in southeastern Massachusetts, placing social impacts in the regional spotlight regardless of where a casino ends up.
Casey said the gambling issues he encounters in his ministry vary, but most heavily affect senior citizens and people with physical or mental disabilities. He said he often sees people with gambling problems misspend federal assistance.
“They’re waiting for those checks so they can get in and buy their lottery tickets,” he said. “To a point where they’ll go without food for it.”
Spear said High Point received state grant funding within the past two weeks that, for the first time, will boost the agency’s ability to address gambling addiction.
Spear said High Point has received funding from the substance abuse grant for several years, through the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services under the state Department of Public Health. This was the first year, though, that the bureau included gambling addiction in its request for applications.
“Being an addiction agency, we usually screen for gambling addiction,” Spear said. “It really tends to be, in this area, lottery tickets, scratch tickets, Keno.”
Spear said High Point serves low-income or unemployed people who often aren’t able to travel to a casino outside New Bedford. Placing one here, she said, could worsen local addiction problems.
“It would increase accessibility to different types of gambling,” Spear said.
High Point staff address amount and frequency of gambling when screening new patients, Spear said, but the “major factor is the problems that it’s creating” in their lives.
“Somebody might buy a $2 scratch ticket every day, and it might not create any problems for them,” Spear said. “Someone might buy two $10 tickets, which may then impact their ability to pay their rent or buy food. It might create trouble in a relationship.”
Spear said problems arise when people continue to gamble despite repeated negative consequences, while ignoring long-term impacts of daily habits.
“People aren’t always aware of the smaller problems,” Spear said.
A new state study took a snapshot of gambling across Massachusetts, which is on the verge of a casino boom whether New Bedford is included or not. Plainridge Park Casino, a slots parlor, opens June 24 in Plainville. Casino licenses also have been granted in Springfield and Everett.
About 7.5 percent of Massachusetts adults are at-risk gamblers, according to the state’s Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts study, released Thursday. About 1.7 percent of adults in the state are problem gamblers, the data indicated.
The study was funded by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and conducted by researchers from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences. Researchers surveyed nearly 10,000 residents from September 2013 to May 2014.
The study is intended to set baseline data for future examination of how gambling is affecting the state, after casinos open.
The study’s primary investigator, Rachel Volberg, gave sobering comments to the Gaming Commission on Thursday.
“As gambling participation increases, socializing with family and friends, and supporting worthy causes, become increasingly less important,” Volberg said.
That statement reflects concerns raised by members of SouthCoast ministries and arts communities, who have expressed opposition to New Bedford’s waterfront casino proposal. The city’s casino bid is supported by Mayor Jon Mitchell, New Bedford City Council, members of the economic development community and others.
Casino supporters have touted the development’s ability to clean up the environmentally contaminated NStar site, at an estimated cost of $50 million, while bringing thousands of jobs to the city and revenue streams including taxes and annual payments to New Bedford of $12.5 million a year.
Casino opponents say the social costs of all that money would be too great.
There is no debate, either way, that gambling revenues are plentiful across the state.
The Massachusetts State Lottery generated nearly $4.9 billion in sales and fees across the state last year, from consumer gambling and spending that’s evident at corner shops, package stores, Keno machines and locations across New Bedford.
About 1 in 20 Mass Lottery players spent more than $5,200 in 2012, according to a 2013 survey by the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. The survey questioned more than 1,000 adult respondents in Massachusetts. About 11 percent of those big spenders, identified as probable pathological gamblers, lived in Bristol County.
The study released Thursday adds more data onto the pile. Among 14 states that have conducted gambling studies in the past 11 years, Massachusetts’ 1.7 percent rate of adult problem gamblers was the fourth-highest.
Volberg said the data be invaluable in tracking statewide gambling trends and impacts in years to come.
“We are virtually the only state that has gotten a clean baseline (of problem gambling data) before casinos have become operational in the jurisdiction,” she said.
New Bedford Police Chief David A. Provencher has been looking at his share of data lately, as well. He said he’s read scores of studies about casino-related crime in recent months, and found the effects aren’t as drastic as some might think.
Provencher said that while the biggest argument against casinos is that “as gambling takes root, communities and regions will see an increase in bankruptcy, substance abuse, domestic violence and embezzlement,” that argument isn’t supported by the numbers.
“The evidence suggests, contrary to most of our gut feelings, that statistically it just doesn’t seem to be the case,” Provencher said.
Provencher also was a panelist Wednesday night at the Zeiterion.
“The types of crimes we all expect would come with a casino don’t occur in cities where casinos are established,” he told the crowd.
The 2013 state survey indicated otherwise, though, because of correlating problems frequently tied to gambling addiction.
“More than one half of probable pathological gamblers identified having at least one other problem behavior,” reads the Massachusetts Statewide Gambling Behavior, Opinions and Needs Assessment, released in 2013. “Thirty-one percent have had a drug problem, 24 percent have had an alcohol problem, 17 percent have had a sex addiction problem, 6 percent have had a problem stealing, and 4 percent shoplifting.”
Provencher acknowledged that the simple fact of casino crowds could affect local crime rates.
“Most of the crime rates you’re going to read about are based on population,” he said. “If you assume for the sake of argument that 20,000 people are coming into a casino every day, during that time, your (New Bedford) population is no longer 96,000.”
Problems on the casino site largely will be handled by casino security staff and surveillance cameras, he said. But spillover and regional impacts, should they occur, could be harder to track.
“I think we’ll see an increase in calls for service, because of the size and nature of the clientele,” Provencher said.
New Bedford native and South End resident R. Carleen Cordwell, an activist and entrepreneur who described herself at the Zeiterion forum as a second-generation Cape Verdean American and “the direct descendant of a whaler,” said a casino could change the city’s crime situation for the better.
A properly planned casino “could be the most innovative thing that’s happened in many, many years” in the city, she said, and could reduce crime by addressing a root cause: unemployment.
“You have children with nowhere to go, that [sic] end up criminals,” Cordwell said.
A casino could give young adults from low-income neighborhoods training in high-end service industry jobs, Cordwell said, creating opportunities that currently don’t exist in the city.
“If (a casino) made sure it was conscious of mental health issues and addiction issues … it could change the entire community,” she said.