Hold ’Em or Fold ’Em Question for Massachusetts Casino Hopefuls

Tanya Lee

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is vetting applications for three Class III casino-resorts in the state, one each in Region A (Eastern Massachusetts), Region B (Western Massachusetts) and Region C (Southeastern Massachusetts). As the complex application process continues, it is unclear who will be left at the table come time to issue the licenses.

In Region A, the MGC just completed its "suitability check" on the Mashantucket Pequot Foxwoods proposal for a $1-billion facility. The commission had expressed concern about the lack of firm financing for the project and former Tribal Chairman Michael Thomas's conviction for financial misconduct. Nonetheless, on November 15 the MGC issued a conditional positive suitability determination, which would have allowed the proposal to go forward. But on November 19, Milford, Massachusetts, which would have been the host community for the development, voted it down by a 2-1 margin, with nearly 10,000 voters, or 55 percent of registered voters in the town, having turned out. Despite the developers having raised to $31 million the annual revenues that would have gone to the town, the project is almost certainly dead.

Also in Region A, referendum votes for the proposed Suffolk Downs project were split, with East Boston rejecting the development and Revere, Massachusetts, accepting it. Suffolk Downs has said it will resubmit its application using just the Revere site, but it is unclear whether they can actually do that, and if they can, how the timing would work out if a new application means the developers had to take the proposal back to Revere voters—Phase II applications for Regions A and B are due December 31. The Wynn MA proposal is still active, and the MGC has scheduled a hearing on the project for December. Wynn has voter approval from it proposed host community, Everett, Massachusetts.

In Region B, the Seminole Tribe bowed out after West Springfield, Massachusetts, voters rejected their proposal on September 10.

On November 5, voters in prospective host city Palmer, Massachusetts, rejected Mohegan Sun's proposal for a $1-billion casino and resort. The project lost by 93 votes out of a total of over 5,000 (66 percent of the town's registered voters turned out). Mohegan Sun has asked for a recount, which is scheduled for November 26. Unless the recount reversed the outcome of the referendum, Mohegan Sun is out of chips.

Finally, in Region B, the MGM project in Springfield, Massachusetts, is still viable. The commission will hold a hearing on that proposal in December.

In Region C, the Massachusetts state House and Senate have approved a state-tribal gaming compact with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. The landless tribe just announced that on October 23, the Department of Interior approved the draft EIS for the land-into-trust application for the land on which the First Light Casino would be sited. The tribe has approval from their host community, Taunton, Massachusetts.

In September the state rescinded the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's exclusive right to build a casino in the Southeast Massachusetts region and opened the area to commercial bidders. KG Urban Enterprises has filed a Phase I application to build a waterfront casino in New Bedford, Massachusetts, but has not met any of the other benchmarks in the application procedure. When the MGC opened up the region to commercial applicants, it also extended the timeline for Region C Phase II applications, which could work in the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's favor as it waits for Interior to approve its land-to-trust bid.

In the meantime, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) on Martha's Vineyard, long an island summer retreat for the well-to-do, has announced that in the opinion of the National Indian Gaming Commission, they have the right to build a Class II casino on tribal land under Indian Gaming Regulation Act. Gov. Deval Patrick has said he will fight any casino proposal and will not negotiate with the tribe to put a Class III casino on a larger piece of land. Tribal Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais was strongly in favor of moving quickly to build a casino, but on Sunday the tribe elected Tobias Vanderhoop, who advocates a more cautious approach, as chairman. WBUR quoted him as saying, “I am in favor of an appropriate gaming initiative for our people, but our people are the ones that have to define what is appropriate, and that discussion needs to really happen in a more in-depth way."

Finally, although the MGC did not anticipate a shortfall in applicants, it could in fact end up with no acceptable applicants for one or more regions. Clyde Barrow, a professor of public policy at UMass Dartmouth, who specializes in gaming policy, said in an interview with WBUR's All Things Considered, "We could get to the end of the road and have to start over all again." In that case, presumably tribes, whether former or new applicants, could ante up for another round.

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