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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) - For the second time in two weeks, members of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission took up but failed to resolve a life-or-death question hanging over Mohegan Sun’s $1 billion plan for a casino resort at the Revere end of Suffolk Downs: Can the all-new project move ahead without requiring another city vote?
However, comments made by three of the five commissioners – Chairman Stephen P. Crosby and commissioners Gayle Cameron and Enrique Zuniga – seemed to indicate they all are favorably inclined to let Mohegan push ahead, because of either precedents in earlier cases or a sense if it’s not certain the answer is no, the casino proponents should get a chance to move ahead.
Back on Nov. 5 Revere residents voted 61-39 in favor of the Suffolk Downs casino plan, the same day East Boston voters rejected it by 56-44. After Caesars Entertainment was pushed out three weeks before the vote over financial and ethics issues – although it was still named on the Boston ballot as the casino developer – Mohegan Sun was named Nov. 27 as the new casino partner. Suffolk and Mohegan are now pushing a new project, which they and Mayor Dan Rizzo contend is an allowable change under the "host community agreement" Suffolk had negotiated with Revere, in which the casino is in Revere, not East Boston; it is entirely separate from the 78-year-old race track instead of being tightly integrated into it; and Suffolk is no longer and owner but a landlord renting 42 acres for a casino to a 60-40 partnership of Brigade Capital and Mohegan.
"I am troubled by the dramatic change in the content of the agreement from the agreement that was before the voters when they voted," Commissioner James McHugh, a former Superior Court judge, said at the commission’s meeting Tuesday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. "This proposal now is so far different in so many dimensions from the proposal that the voters had before them when they went to the polls that it stretches the concept of a 'knowing community vote' beyond recognition … The voters have not had an opportunity to vote on Mohegan Sun. They voted on a proposal that was led by people they knew" from Suffolk Downs -- "People who had been in their community for years, people who had gone door-to-door in their community."
But Cameron, a former New Jersey State Police commander, said while casino foes across the state have never been shy to reach out to the commission, "The people in Revere have not come out to talk to us about, 'It's a different vote. This is not what I voted for.' And I find that to be persuasive." Cameron added that the commission has already allowed a change of casino ownership to proceed after an election was underway – when Penn National stepped in to take over the slots parlor bid at Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville three days before the town vote, when absentee voting was already underway. Penn National was brought in to replace Ourway Realty after Gaming Commission investigators found a principal track owner had been making highly irregular cash withdrawals from the track’s money room for years.
Cameron said that precedent seems to allow letting Mohegan Sun and Brigade replace Suffolk Downs and Caesars as the project proponents. "I don't know how much different it is than what we allowed in Plainville, where the applicant listed on the ballot was not the same applicant at that time."
Crosby said his reading of the Revere host community agreement was that, at a minimum, it never ruled out the possibility of the casino being shifted over to Revere after the document was drafted. "I can’t see a reason -- a right reason, a compelling reason public policy reason -- to deny the people of Revere to play out their string on this," Crosby said. Monday night, the Revere City Council by a 9-0 vote endorsed the new Mohegan casino plan.
Left unsaid by commissioners: The likelihood they are desperate to avoid a situation where, with MGM in Springfield the last bidder standing for the one western Massachusetts casino license, Wynn Resorts’ Everett casino could become the last bidder standing for the eastern Massachusetts bidder if the Mohegan Revere bid is ruled illegal.
Time is short: December 31 is the deadline the Gaming Commission has set for final casino applications, and Mohegan still has to finalize the casino plan, renegotiate "host community" terms with Revere, and come to "surrounding community" mitigation agreements with Boston, Chelsea, Winthrop, and possibly Lynn and Medford and other communities as well.
Commissioner Bruce Stebbins, a former Springfield economic development leader, said there were so many lingering questions that are all connected to each other – what the Revere vote allows or doesn’t for changes, whether Mohegan can be approved as a new project proponent and Suffolk Downs downgraded from owner to landlord, and more – that it would have been a mistake to rush to a vote on one of those issues Tuesday.
"If we turn around a week later and slam on the brakes, everybody is frustrated and confused," Stebbins said.
Responded Crosby: "Everybody’s frustrated and confused anyway."
Crosby, who has overwhelmingly succeeded in getting the two-year-old commission to make decisions by consensus rather than roll-call votes, expressed confidence that with guidance from commission lawyers, the commission sometime next week can answer the Revere casino question he has summed up as, “Can they do this?”
"We have, I think, pretty well teed up that we will make a dispositive 'go/no go' decision, to put it colloquially, on the Revere-only proposal," Crosby said. "We will try to make the final decision on that next week."
Meanwhile, this week the commission is completing a final round of local public hearings on the bids for the one slots parlor license to be awarded under the 2011 gambling law, in Leominster, Raynham, and Plainville. The commission hopes to award that license – for a $125 million-plus facility with up to 1,250 slot machines but no table games. The former Raynham greyhound track, Plainridge, and a Leominster site off Interstate 190 are being eyed for the slots development.
With video editor John E. Stuart