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Casinos Make Slow, Steady Progress In Mass. In 2012

BOSTON — It’s been a little over a year since Gov. Deval Patrick signed legislation authorizing the creation of up to three resort casinos and one slot parlor to operate in Massachusetts. But the state is still a few years away from the first legal bet being placed.

WBUR’s Steve Brown joined Morning Edition’s Bob Oakes to look back at the progress and bumps along the way.

Bob Oakes: So what have been the key developments this past year when it comes to casino gambling?

Steve Brown: First and foremost, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission got up and running. That had to happen from scratch. Only the chairman, Stephen Crosby, was on board as of the first of this year. The rest of the commission, as well as the commission’s support staff, had to be hired, they had to find office space, and they had to begin drafting the rules that will govern how the casino licenses will be awarded.

The commission has held about 40 public meetings since early this year and seven educational forums. They’ve begun holding so-called “scope of licensing” meetings with 11 potential developers. These meetings are the only opportunity for developers to sit down with the commission. So far, four of the developers have ponied up the $400,000, non-refundable application fee — think of it as the ante in for a poker game. The idea is those application fees should cover the administrative costs of running the commission.

Now the Legislature divided the state up into three zones: eastern Massachusetts, western Massachusetts and the southeastern part of the state. The law states only one resort casino in each of those zones; how are things shaking out in each of those districts?

Very different activity in each of the districts. For starters lets look at the eastern district, otherwise known as “Region A” for much of the year, it looked as if Suffolk Downs in East Boston, which has partnered with Caesar’s Entertainment, was the only major player vying for the license. Early on Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn had announced a partnership with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft for a competing casino in Foxborough, which is also in Region A, but that partnership was short lived.

The question of a casino wasn’t directly on the ballot in Foxborough, but Wynn got the message in the spring election when voters chose selectmen candidates who were vehemently opposed to having a casino in town. A day or two after that election, Wynn announced he was not going to pursue the project… in Foxborough.

Now Crosby has indicated he really wants to see competition for these licenses and even urged some of the several developers who have their eyes on the western part of the state to focus their gaze east. None of those did, however late this year, we saw the return of Wynn, who’s expressing interest in a spot of land along the Mystic River in Everett. We should see how that plays out over the next few months.

And in southeastern Massachusetts, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has an advantage for the license there?

They do, but it’s anything but a “sure thing.” Earlier this year, things were going great for the tribe. Voters in Taunton approved a host community agreement — the first time a community formally said “yes” to a casino in Massachusetts. The tribe and the Patrick administration agreed on a compact where the tribe would pay 21.5 percent of their gaming revenues to the state in exchange for exclusivity in the region.

Then in October, the federal government rejected that compact, saying the state’s take was too high. So the tribe and the state are renegotiating the compact in the hopes of coming up with something more palatable to the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. In the meantime, one developer who wants to open a casino in New Bedford is still challenging the law that gives the tribe first dibs on the region. That’s still pending in federal district court. And just recently, the gaming commission began discussing some provisional rules, should the tribal casino deal become derailed. The commission may want to start vetting other developers in the region, so that they won’t have to start from square one, should the Wampanoag deal fall apart, but they’ve delayed putting those provisional rules in place until the spring.

How about in the western part of the state?

That’s where most of the activity has been taking place, a lot of developers have their eyes on western Massachusetts. There are two competing proposals in the city of Springfield alone: Penn National and MGM are duking it out there. There had been a third proposal from Ameristar Casinos, but they pulled out last month. Of course Springfield isn’t the only community in that region vying for a casino. The town of Palmer has been working with the Mohegan tribe for a couple of years to bring a casino there.

And things were a bit confusing in the city of Holyoke. In 2011, a developer wanted to put a resort casino in that community, but voters there elected a new mayor who campaigned on an anti-casino platform, and that pretty much killed the plan. About a month ago, that mayor, Alex Morse said he was reconsidering his position, and hinted a casino might be good for the city. But then after a huge outcry from supporters, he went back to his original, anti-casino position.

Now Massachusetts authorized casino gambling to keep money from Bay State gamblers from going out of state, specifically to the two resort casinos in Connecticut, but other states are upping the ante as well, isn’t that right?

Yes, there’s talk of opening up a casino just over the border in Salem, N.H., at Rockingham Park. There could be a non-binding referendum put before voters this coming spring. New York is laying the groundwork for seven casinos, if they go online, they could cut into the casino in the western part of Massachusetts. There are also rumblings coming from south of the border in Rhode Island — that state’s slots parlor, Twin Rivers, may soon add table games to that venue.

Let’s look ahead at the timetable, when will the first casino be opening here in Massachusetts?

Best estimate is sometime in 2016. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission set a deadline of Jan. 15, 2013, just a couple of weeks from now, for all applications to be handed in. The commission expects background checks to take between six to nine months. Some developers will move on to a second phase of applications due in the fall of next year and licenses will be awarded in February 2014. Figure it will likely take two years to build the resorts, that puts us into 2016 for the first legal roll of the dice. The commission has indicated, however they will issue the single “slots-only” license sometime before the end of 2013, so a slots only parlor may be online much sooner.

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