Everett plan moves forward
By Elizabeth Sheeran
It’s been a “good news, bad news” month for casino opponents in Somerville. The good news: public support for gaming in Massachusetts looks to be waning, with a wave of casino proposals going down to defeat in recent host community referendums. The bad news: those defeats elsewhere are improving the odds for a Wynn Resorts casino just across the Mystic River in Everett, which passed its own local referendum months ago.
Milford voters last week soundly rejected a Foxwoods-backed proposal. Two weeks earlier, East Boston residents voted down a casino plan for Suffolk Downs that straddled the town line with Revere, even as Revere voters approved it. That leaves Wynn’s Everett project as the only one of the three contenders for this region’s single resort casino license to have passed the host community referendum test with flying colors.
But a resort casino in Everett isn’t a sure bet just yet.
Suffolk Downs backers last week presented the five-member Massachusetts Gaming Commission with a re-packaged plan that locates the casino entirely within Revere city limits. Critics say the referendum vote can’t be retrofitted to a new proposal, and there isn’t enough time before the December 31 application deadline for a new vote. The Gaming Commission is still reviewing the matter.
And Wynn’s Everett casino proposal has its own hurdles yet to clear. The Gaming Commission has scheduled a December 16 hearing to review Wynn’s suitability as an applicant, and the bar has been set high.
“The burden is on the applicant to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence both its affirmative qualifications for licensure and the absence of any disqualification for licensure,” said Gaming Commission Chairman Steve Crosby at a recent hearing.
The commission added a number of conditions to its suitability finding for the Milford casino proposal, just days before voters there shot it down. According to Gaming Commission documents, its investigative report casts a very broad net, including “affiliates and close associates and the financial resources of the applicant.”
The background investigation into the Suffolk Downs project raised enough questions about the business dealings of participant Caesars Entertainment that Suffolk’s owners eventually cut ties with Caesars altogether, leaving it without a partner to run the proposed casino. Even if it’s allowed to proceed with a Revere-only option, Suffolk Downs still has to find a new “suitable” casino operator before it can pass the suitability test itself.
Nor has Wynn Resorts managed to avoid its own speed bumps on the road to approval. The Las Vegas-based firm last week acknowledged that Gaming Commission investigators had raised questions about who actually owns the 30 acres of land where Wynn plans to build its Everett casino. Separately, the Boston Globe reported that Charles Lightbody, who has a criminal record and made the news last month when he was charged with punching a Suffolk Downs casino supporter, was suspected of having a beneficial interest in the Everett land deal.
In a statement, Wynn said the Gaming Commission’s Investigation and Enforcement Bureau (IEB) “raised concerns about potential participants who had not been disclosed to us. Those concerns were denied by the selling group.” Wynn went on to say it had responded to IEB concerns by renegotiating the terms of its option to buy the land. “We have agreed with the sellers to amend our option agreement to clearly confirm ownership and to reduce the option price to reflect fair market value without casino use,” said the statement released last Thursday.
Gaming Commission officials have said they cannot discuss the specifics of the background investigation until the investigation is complete. But with Wynn’s suitability hearing less than three weeks away, and a decision anticipated soon on the Revere-only option for Suffolk Downs, the commission is getting closer to deciding the fate of that 30 acres of blighted property, which sits just across the river from Somerville’s Assembly Row.
Under the state gaming law, casino developers must negotiate mitigation agreements with designated “surrounding communities” within 30 days of their final application. But it’s up to the developers to designate which towns and cities are “surrounding communities,” subject to appeal within 10 days.
According to official correspondence between Mayor Joseph Curtatone and Wynn Resorts Development, Wynn has yet to designate Somerville as a surrounding community, despite at least three such requests from the mayor since September 3.
The mayor has also repeatedly requested that Wynn provide funds for Somerville to conduct an independent study of potential impacts on the city, as provided for by the gaming law. Wynn instead offered to share its own studies so as to avoid “duplication of efforts.” In an October 14 letter, Wynn’s General Counsel Jacqui Krum wrote, “Based on the results of our economic impact study, we have determined that the City of Somerville will not suffer any adverse impacts from our proposed development other than, potentially, traffic impacts.”
Mayor Curtatone has rejected the “duplication of efforts” argument. “It is imperative for the City of Somerville to also be in a position to independently assess impacts as a potential surrounding community without expense or delay,” wrote the mayor. “Your response amounts to a denial of the city’s request for funding to study potential impacts.”
According to the mayor’s office, staff and elected officials are meeting regularly to share updates on the casino proposal, but the city can’t yet plan what to do about the project’s impact because Wynn hasn’t yet given Somerville all the data and technical support it needs to accurately assess what that impact is going to be.
In a letter to Wynn earlier this month, the mayor wrote that the developer’s failure to respond to issues he had raised previously “raises serious concerns with respect to how Wynn proposes to address surrounding community impact and mitigation issues relative to the City of Somerville.”
Somerville may not have to wait too long to find out what kind of a neighbor Wynn Resorts might be in Everett. The developer has until December 31 to complete its application with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission; then the 30-day clock starts ticking on mitigation agreements with surrounding communities.
The Gaming Commission is expected to award the Eastern Massachusetts resort casino license by the end of April.