BOSTON — Springfield officials agreed Tuesday to slow down the process for choosing among several developers interested in building a casino in the western Massachusetts city, soothing concerns over a potential scheduling conflict with state gaming regulators.
In a letter to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, city Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy said the city agreed it would not put any of the casino proposals before voters until the commission has completed its initial financial review of the casino applicants.
Kennedy said the city also would require that any potential casino developer submit an application to the state, which includes a $400,000 non-refundable application fee.
The concessions will “further our respective goals of working in a cooperative and timely fashion,” Kennedy wrote.
The commission expressed concern during a meeting in Springfield last week that the city was moving too quickly in its selection process. Commissioners speculated the city could negotiate a voter-approved agreement with a developer, only to have the commission then determine after its financial review that the developer had not prequalified to bid for a casino license.
“On the big issue of the incompatibility with our schedule, I think they have rethought it and are happy to agree with us to try to match our schedule, which is a really good development,” commission Chairman Stephen Crosby said during a panel meeting in Boston on Tuesday.
Springfield officials said they expected between four and six casino proposals. Two companies, MGM Resorts International and Ameristar Casinos, have already unveiled their plans for the state’s third-largest city.
Mayor Domenic Sarno and other city officials hope to whittle down the list of potential developers before negotiating an agreement with one or possibly more of the companies. Under the city’s original timetable, a referendum on an agreement could be held as early as next spring.
But under a tentative timetable outlined earlier by the commission, casino applicants would not be prequalified until mid-2013 or possibly later, pushing back a possible referendum by several months at least.
Regardless of which timetable is used, the state panel would still have final say to award the sole western Massachusetts casino license allowed under the state’s new gambling law. The developer that emerges from the Springfield selection process will likely have to compete with a proposal by Mohegan Sun for a resort casino in the town of Palmer.
Commissioner Enrique Zuniga said he believed Springfield was taking the wrong approach by trying to pick a winner, rather than putting each of the casino proposals on the ballot and allowing voters to choose. City officials contend that such a process would be, among other things, too confusing for voters.
“I think the city may be underestimating the voters,” Zuniga said Tuesday. “I’d like to believe that something like this could be structured in a way that would be clear and the voters would make an informed decision.”
On a related matter, Crosby said he expected the Massachusetts Ethics Commission to rule within a few days on whether Springfield’s hiring of a Chicago-based law firm to serve as consultant on its casino selection process ran afoul of state conflict-of-interest laws. The firm, Shefsky & Froelich, performs lobbying work in Illinois for MGM and Penn National Gaming, another likely Springfield suitor.