BOSTON — Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno was well within his rights under the state’s new gambling law to establish a selection process for choosing among multiple casino proposals in his city, the chairman of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission said Tuesday.
At least four casino developers have set their sights on the largest city in western Massachusetts, prompting Sarno’s recently announced plan to winnow down the list of suitors based on several factors including finances, experience and project concepts.
Stephen Crosby, chairman of the five-member state gaming commission, acknowledged before the start of the panel’s weekly meeting that the situation in Springfield was unusual and likely wasn’t anticipated by the Legislature when it passed the casino gambling law last year. But he noted that the law was clear in the broad power it invested in municipal officials — and mayors in particular — to determine whether to throw open the doors to casino developers.
“The legislation gives the government of the town the right to negotiate a host community agreement, or not,” Crosby said.
As an example of the latter, Crosby pointed to Holyoke, where Mayor Alex Morse, a casino opponent, refused to negotiate with a prospective developer and effectively ended any further discussion in the city. Selectmen in Foxborough also chose not to enter into negotiations with Steve Wynn, leading the Las Vegas casino operator to suspend plans for a resort casino near Gillette Stadium.
Crosby and fellow commissioner Bruce Stebbins said they did not feel the selection process in Springfield would undermine the role of the state gaming panel, which retains final say over the sole resort casino license that would be awarded in western Massachusetts, one of three regional licenses allowed under the new law.
“Nobody will get a license that isn’t approved by the gaming commission,” Crosby said. “Whatever comes out of Springfield will compete with whatever else there is in western (Massachusetts) and we will make the ultimate decision.”
The strongest competition for the regional license outside of Springfield is likely to come from Mohegan Sun, which has proposed a resort casino off the Massachusetts Turnpike in Palmer.
MGM Resorts International last week unveiled an $800 million plan for a casino, hotel and entertainment complex in downtown Springfield. Ameristar Casinos has purchased a former industrial site off Interstate 91, while Penn National Gaming and Hard Rock International are also expected to offer plans within the city.
Sarno left open the possibility of negotiating with more than one prospective developer after the initial screening process ends later this year.
“Municipalities are dealing with the process for the first time, so they need to figure out what works best for them,” said Stebbins, who was Springfield’s economic development director before being appointed to the state gaming panel.