BOSTON — A vote to expand gambling in Massachusetts is widely expected to pass in the House Wednesday or Thursday. Along with one slot parlor, the bill would authorize three resort-style casinos in different parts of the state. With the Senate likely to follow the House’s approval in a couple of weeks, casino developers are jockeying for position over the exclusive licenses.
Here’s a rundown of who’s in play at this point:
REGION A: Northeast
This region including Worcester and Greater Boston is home to a strategic casino site, considering the area’s proximity to Boston’s population and its ability to intercept people from points north.
Front-runner: If you have to handicap this race, give it to the horse racetrack. Suffolk Downs in East Boston seized on the opportunity to build a resort-style casino when Speaker (and casino opponent) Salvatore DiMasi left office, opening the door to expanded gambling in Massachusetts. Support from Boston politicians and its proximity to high numbers of people give it the numbers it needs to work.
Competition: Warner Gaming (which is behind the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas) has teamed up with David Nunes, a real estate developer from Colorado, to propose an $850 million resort casino in Milford, just off of I-495 and down the road from Nunes’ birthplace of Bolton. The key selling point? Its location close to the intersection of I-495 and the Mass Pike.
Dark horse: Don’t count out global casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who may want a retirement project closer to his boyhood home of Dorchester. He has toyed (and that’s a fair way to put it, as he’s 16th on the Forbes billionaire list) with the idea of developing a casino in Marlborough.
REGION B: West
Western Massachusetts will get a license, and besides the heart string-tugging appeal of providing jobs in hard-hit former manufacturing towns, the area could also cannibalize some of the gambling revenue normally gobbled up by Connecticut casinos.
Front-runner: Which might be why those Connecticut casinos would rather be the ones cannibalizing themselves. The Mohegan Sun proposal in Palmer has run a storefront in town for more than two years and has reached memoranda of understanding with local unions and other groups. Going public with the design means Mohegan is already well into the groundwork for winning the community approval that will be one key to winning a license.
Competition: The Paper City Mill Development in Holyoke, backed by Joseph Lashinger, a former Pennsylvania lawmaker who’s been involved with Harrah’s and Bally’s Entertainment. If anyone could manage a glitzy casino in what was once a Puritan commonwealth, he could. Lashinger once pushed for a casino near the Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg.
REGION C: Southeast
This region is closed and wide open at the same time. How so? Massachusetts officials want to avoid the very real possibility of a fourth casino. That’s because if the state legalizes gaming, American Indian tribes could build casinos on tribal land and they wouldn’t have to share money with the state.
Front-runner: The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Why would it give up money and negotiate a revenue-sharing deal with the state? Because it could start building sooner and avoid having to compete with another casino in the same region. Thus, the legislation gives preference to the tribe, guaranteeing a license in the southeastern part of the state if the Mashpee reaches a deal by next summer.
Competition: Other proposals are hoping the tribe trips up. There are at least two jostling with each other for community support in New Bedford alone. Foundation Gaming Group (which runs the Hard Rock Casino in Biloxi, Miss.) is eying a site where Route 18 crosses I-195. Meanwhile, KG Urban Enterprises wants to build further south, on the waterfront.
Dark horse(s): The Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville and Raynham Park, a former dog racetrack in Raynham, are both hungry for the wild card in the state’s casino gambling legislation: a so-called “racino” that’s basically a gambling hall with slot machines. The bill grants one of those. Even so, if the region’s casino license is up for grabs, these sites could put their respective ponies in the race.
Many major casino operators based in Asia, Atlantic City and Las Vegas have shied away from planning and investing in Massachusetts proposals. It’s hard to blame them, considering the years of hemming and hawing and late-stage political brinkmanship that has sunk previous bills. But as the State House appears to be weeks away from expanding gambling in the Bay State, expect more casino firms to put their chips on the table. After all, they have the cash to move fast.