A group of 10 residents opposed to an initiative that would allow a second slots parlor in Massachusetts—at the Suffolk Downs racetrack, filed a petition with the state Supreme Court to prevent the measure from appearing on the ballot.
The group actually filed its complaint with the Supreme Judicial Court against Attorney General Maura Healey and Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin for qualifying the ballot measure.
One of the plaintiffs, Celeste Myers of No Eastie Casino, told reporters last week, “The suit is to encourage them to take a second look at the language and recognize this is not a statewide ballot issue.”
Proponents gathered 74,000 signatures for the measure, which would appear on this year’s November ballot. It would authorize the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to issue a second slots parlor license, but specifies the location in such narrow terms that it could only be allowed at Suffolk Downs, near Boston. For example, it says the casino could only be located next to a racetrack.
A law that only applies to one locality is illegal, say the opponents. They note that the other racetracks in the state either have a slots parlor or are applying for a casino license.
Healey’s office plans to file a brief with the court defending its decision and arguing that the initiative is constitutional.
The entire Supreme Judicial Court is not expected to issue an opinion. One justice only will issue a ruling or transfer the case to a lower court.
A real estate broker Eugene McCain, who has an option on a trailer park in Revere, is pushing the initiative. According to Suffolk Downs CEO Chip Tuttle, the racetrack is not part of the proposal.
In 2013 East Boston voters rejected a plan that would have made Suffolk Downs one of the bidders for the Boston metro casino license.
The battle of wills between Steve Wynn and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh over the Wynn Everett casino in neighboring Everett continued last week when the mayor refused a $1 million check from Wynn.
The money was intended to aid Charlestown non-profits and help mitigate the effects of the expected traffic impacts on Charlestown’s Sullivan Square when the mega casino opens.
The money came from surrounding community agreement that the commission crafted with Wynn but which the city of Boston declined to participate with. Under the agreement Wynn would pay between $56 million and $76 million to the city.
According to Wynn Everett President Bob DeSalvio: “We believe the $56 million package for Boston, which is primarily dedicated to Charlestown traffic solutions, will be critical in solving the decades-long problems of Sullivan Square The package is comprehensive in that it also includes vendor and employee commitments consistent with our other Surrounding Community Agreements. This initial payment, so closely following the acquisition of our land parcel, is still another step that keeps us on track to make our 5-star resort a reality.”
Wynn tried to negotiate with the mayor and his representatives, only to have the meetings cancelled several times.
According to Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria, “They should have participated in the Surrounding Community Agreement process and they didn’t. I know Mr. Wynn went to talk to Mayor Walsh and I know members of the group have tried to meet with Boston too. I don’t get it.”
Boston’s version of this story is that Wynn has refused to negotiate in good faith with the city. That’s why Walsh and the city sued the gaming commission to try to overturn the license award to Everett. Boston has also claimed that it should be considered a Host Community, rather than a Surrounding Community, under state law.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission last week granted the final state license to MGM Resorts to build the $950 million MGM Springfield. That doesn’t mean that the commission has approved the revised and downsized plans for the casino.
Equally, the decision by the Springfield Council to approve of a casino overlay district for the casino footprint allows some preliminary work to begin on the 14.5-acre casino site without approving of the downsizing of the project.
Nevertheless, Michael Mathis, president of MGM Springfield greeted the news with enthusiasm. “This approval has been a year in the making. We are eager to bring this back to Springfield and work with the city to get final sign off for impactful demolition and construction.”
MGM plans to start demolition work in mid-January.
Massachusetts is the U.S.’s third richest state and Springfield is the third largest city in the state. The location allows MGM to diversify its operations outside of Las Vegas, which has been impacted by slow economic growth and the growth of casinos outside of Nevada as well as the strong growth of gaming in Macau.
MGM plans to deploy 3,600 slot machines and 140 gaming tables at the casino, which is expected to open in 2018. Controversially, MGM has proposed changing its original design to eliminate the 25-story hotel and replace it with a six-story hotel with the same number of rooms.
The project is being called the largest economic development project in the history of the western part of the Bay State and the largest construction project in Springfield in many years.
The project has been plagued by delays and a $150 million increase to its budget, one reason that MGM decided to downsize. It also had to request a one-year delay in opening so that a large highway bypass being built nearby would not mar the opening. MGM has also had to refute rumors that it might want to back out of the project.
In October MGM President Bill Hornbuckle traveled to the city to declare, ”We have not gone anywhere, we will not go anywhere.”
Despite not meeting profit predictions by a wide margin the Plainridge Park slots parlor still has the confidence of Massachusetts Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby, who told Fox News last week that he considered that the state’s casino industry is still viable and sustainable.
Although Plainville’s slots revenues have declined from $18.1 million a month in June, when it opened, to $11.9 million in December.
“The revenues that have been paid to the communities are in the millions, the tax revenues to the commonwealth have been in excess of $30 million,” Crosby told Fox News.
On the commission’s website Crosby wrote that the casino has created 550 jobs, spent millions of dollars on local roads and last year bought $1.8 million from local merchants. “It is clear that the Plainridge Park Casino has been a substantial economic plus for the Town of Plainville, the region, and the Commonwealth,” he wrote.
He added, “In the first four full months of Plainridge operation, slot machine revenues in the five casinos in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts have increased by $37 million.
“All of that growth has been in the Plainridge facility. And meanwhile, Plainridge seems to have recaptured $22 million in slot revenue from its competitors — a major objective of the legislation [that authorized the casinos].”
Critics of the 2011 legislation that allowed for expanded gaming in the state argue that New England gaming has reached the saturation point and that more casinos will just cannibalize each other.
Some critics argue that the state miscalculated when it decided on the size and scope of the state’s slots parlor. It turned out to be not large enough or diverse enough to take much business away from the larger Twin River Casino in Rhode Island.
This has been confirmed by interviews with Bay State residents who regularly cross the state line to play at Twin River.
One person interviewed declared that there wasn’t enough variety in the slot machines. “We tried Plainridge. We didn’t like it. Too small,” he said.
Another said, “You can get up and walk around. At Plainridge, there’s no place to go.”
Professor Richard McGowan, a gaming specialist at Boston College, interviewed by the Boston Globe, said, “A slots parlor — that just doesn’t cut it anymore. Plainridge is going after 60-year-olds, 70-year-olds, and 80-year-olds. It’s a nice little crowd to go after, but it’s certainly limited.”
When the gaming expansion law was passed in 2011, more than half of the players at Twin River came from Massachusetts. Twin River took defensive actions, upgrading from a slots parlor adjacent to a racetrack to a modern casino with 4,000 slots, gaming tables, a steakhouse, poker tables and a 3,000-seat arena.
As John E. Taylor Jr., chairman of Twin River Management, says, “Plainridge is a nice place, but we have a lot more to offer.”
Project First Light
Meanwhile members of the commission praised the progress that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has been making towards making its Project First Light casino a reality in Taunton.
“The bottom line is that it’s going very well so far,” said John Ziemba, ombudsman for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, during a recent meeting of the commission.
The tribe plans a $500 million resort casino with 2,500 employees that will pay $8 million annually to the city of Taunton. Last year the Bureau of Indian Affairs put 151 acres into Taunton into trust for the tribe.
The tribe and the state signed a tribal state gaming compact in which the tribe is obligated to pay the state 17 percent of its casino revenue as long as it remains the only casino in the southeastern part of the state. If the commission were to grant a commercial license for a casino the tribe would not have to pay anything, but the state would collect 25 percent from the commercial casino.
George Carney, owner of the Brockton Fairgrounds and his partner, Mass Gaming & Entertainment, are the only bidders remaining for the southeastern license.
A group that opposes the Project First Light has asked the commission to delay issuing the commercial license because they say they cannot file their lawsuit against the tribe for six years.
The Brockton casino proponents have long used the threat that the tribe will be sued and that the casino will be tied up for years as the reason why the commission should grant them a license. Otherwise the region might not get a casino for many years, they argue.
However in the letter from the opponents of the Taunton to the commission, they write, “Since the Administrative Procedures Act allows us six years to file in federal court, and understanding that litigation is costly, we expect to be taking advantage of all the time allotted to us in order to raise the funds required for a successful challenge.”
Opponents plan to challenge the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ decision to put the land into trust.
Recently Crosby speculated that the commission ought to advise the legislature to pass an “omnibus bill” that would not only regulate fantasy sports but would also online poker.
Both types of games are considered by many to be online gaming. At a recent press conference Crosby said, “Would it make sense for the Legislature to try to craft an omnibus regulatory bill for all of these new electronic gaming technologies – because there’s so many of them?” He added, “If they could craft a bill, which incorporated regulatory priorities, fundamental values, whatever, that could be applied to all of these games—eSports, [daily fantasy sports], online poker, whatever all the new ones are—maybe then they could give it to some agency to implement, and the agency does the grunt work every six months making it apply to whatever the new technology is.”
Currently the Bay State only allows physical casinos.
Open Meeting Violation
State Attorney General Healey last week alleged that the commission has over and over violated the state’s open meeting laws.
The violations have happened because commissioners have repeatedly held closed door luncheon meetings that weren’t properly noticed as meetings.
The Boston Herald first brought the possible violations to light. The Attorney General’s office noticed that the commission’s situation is somewhat unique because all five commissioners are full-time employees who work in the same building.
Some topics discussed during those meetings were lawsuits, the need for a contingency plan if the casino expansion law was repealed, and the appointment of commissioners.
The Attorney General had reviewed the meetings at the commission’s request. According to commission spokesman Elaine Driscoll, “The Commission is now closely reviewing this information and looks forward to scheduling the recommended training session offered by the AG’s Office,” and will probably discuss the findings at its January meeting.