February 11, 2013

Foxwoods pushing for Mass. casino license

Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket is competing for a Massachusetts casino license in the state's central region, hoping to stem the losses that the Bay State's three planned resort casinos will have on the largest gaming establishment in North America.

While Connecticut rival Mohegan Sun is vying for a license in Massachusetts' western region, Foxwoods hopes to hit the jackpot with a proposal in the central region, by partnering with a proposal in Worcester.

On paper at least, the southern tier of Interstate 495 has the potential to become a new Las Vegas strip, with thousands of slot machines and an array of glitzy restaurants, clubs and entertainment venues to go along with it.

But in reality, developers with hopes of turning Milford and Plainville into major gambling hubs face steep odds, from the potential of local opposition to deep-pocketed competitors at other locations.

David Nunes, a veteran of the Massachusetts development scene, is hoping to snag the crown jewel of the state's three casino licenses, covering Boston and much of eastern and central Massachusetts, with his proposal for a $700 million casino in Milford. Foxwoods Resort Casino, a 4.7-million-square-foot casino in Ledyard, Conn., recently revealed that it has signed an agreement to work with Nunes in Milford.

Though Foxwoods' 20 years of experience operating a resort casino in New England provides a major boost to Nunes, his competition could not be more formidable. It featues Las Vegas tycoon Steve Wynn, who has set up camp in Everett, and Boston's Suffolk Downs racetrack, backed by a powerful group of wealthy and politically wired investors.

A few miles down I-495 in Plainville, Plainridge Racecourse chief Gary Piontkowski and his group of local investors also face competition in their pursuit of a slots parlor license.

Yet the Plainridge group may have some advantages, including community support and a head start on construction, having already begun a key part of their proposed slots complex: securing permission to build a 1,000-car parking garage.

"The most important..and the biggest advantage is speed to market," Piontkowski said. If he can get all necessary approvals, he believes he can roll out slots in a matter months.

Casino Developers Target 495

If nothing else, what office developers have dubbed 495 South has become a magnet for gambling developers scouting for locations since Massachusetts passed legislation in 2011 that gave a green light to three casinos and a slots parlor.

The area's relatively affluent demographics, highway access and strategic position between Boston, Providence and Worcester have been a major draw.

Before he landed in Everett, Wynn tried unsuccessfully to convince Foxborough to let him build a billion-dollar gambling palace next door to Gillette Stadium.

Not far from the 495 corridor, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has laid out plans for a tribal casino in Taunton, though that plan hinges on federal regulations governing Indian gaming.

Nunes wants to build a 300,000-square-foot, Vegas-sized casino at the intersection of 495 and Route 16 in Milford.

Piontkowski, whose dozen-plus partners include an Arizona racino mogul and the former owner of what is now Rhode Island's Twin River Casino in Lincoln, is looking at a smaller slots parlor plan that would feature 1,250 slot machines, but no hotels or other casino trappings.

If all three proposals were to win approval, the 495 corridor could rival southeastern Connecticut, where Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods are just miles apart.

But given that each faces its own set of unique challenges, all the chips would have to fall into place perfectly for that to happen.

Different Projects, Different Odds

While it may be too early to call anyone a front-runner, Piontkowski's group has potentially crucial advantages over some of the more high-power competitors for the slots license.

In addition to his head start on his parking garage, perhaps he biggest is a relatively supportive community and town government.

The racetrack has been a major presence in town for years, with the owners having lobbied for state legislation that would allow them to roll out slot machines for well more than a decade.

The last significant hurdle will be passing a town-wide referendum in Plainville, which is required under the law.

Here again, Plainridge has advantages as Plainville's largest employer, with dozens of residents on the payroll.

"We have been here for 15 years," Piontkowski said. "We are the largest taxpayer, the largest employer and the largest charitable giver in town. We are important to this community."

By contrast, most would-be casino developers can expect to face more skeptical receptions, as Wynn found out after his Foxborough proposal stirred a fierce backlash at the polls last year when voters there elected anti-casino candidates to the Board of Selectmen. He soon abandoned his plans.

The Cordish Cos., a Maryland casino developer, has just entered the first stages of putting together a proposal for a slots parlor on the North Shore, while Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm is hunting for sites.

So, Plainridge's ability to get up and running quickly may help its case, as the Massachusetts Gaming Commission is looking to award the slots license by September.

Since the licensing of the resort-style casinos will take longer, the commission has made it clear it's looking to get a slots parlor up first to bring in the new revenues.

"They (Plainridge investors) are already making the investment — that is going to present a strong case," said Clyde Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

That said, Plainridge's competitors for the slots license are all established players in the gaming industry. Cordish built the Maryland Live! Casino and Bluhm casinos in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, while the owner of the Philadelphia Park racino has teamed up with George Carney, owner of Raynham Park, to vie for the license. Since 2010, Raynham Park has only been able to offer simulcasted dog racing after voters banned wagering on live greyhound races in 2008.

No Enthusiasm In Milford?

Nunes and his group may face the most daunting challenge with their proposal for Milford.

Nunes is no stranger to the volatile realities of small-town Massachusetts politics, having helped develop the Watertown Arsenal Mall. He's also an old hand at casino politics, having worked in the early 2000s with the Aquinnah tribe in its bid to build a casino in Southeastern Massachusetts.

Nunes even teamed up with Donald Trump a few years back when Trump briefly flirted with the idea of building a casino in Rhode Island.

But while Nunes has been nursing his Milford proposal for a couple of years, he's a relative newcomer to town.

And while town officials have been open to the idea of a casino, they haven't rushed to jump on the bandwagon either, waiting for Nunes to come forward with a formal proposal.

Meanwhile, Nunes faces a quadruple hurdle when it comes to getting a green light from Milford.

The developer must first ink an agreement with town officials, then win over a majority of voters in a town referendum. But it doesn't stop there — since casinos and gambling are novel development uses for Milford, Nunes will also have to win a two-thirds vote at Town Meeting to change the zoning governing the sprawling tract of land he controls.

The only potentially saving grace is that Town Meeting members are elected, which would prevent casino opponents from packing the hall.

After that, Nunes must also come to some sort of mitigation agreement with Hopkinton and other surrounding communities, with officials in those towns vocal in their skepticism and concern.

Still, Nunes believes the jobs and tax revenue his project could bring will ultimately give him a winning hand in wooing the town. His proposed casino would transform a "fallow piece of land that would never produce taxes for them" to the "biggest revenue producer in their town's history," Nunes contended in an early February telephone interview.

If he can clear those hurdles, Nunes then gets a chance to go up against some of the biggest players in the casino business.

While he knows the competition is fierce, Nunes isn't backing down.

In a jab at Suffolk Downs, Nunes contends his site out in the suburbs will be safer for gamblers to visit than the gambling resort proposed for the East Boston racetrack.

He argues his location, on undeveloped land that's sufficiently separated from commercial and residential areas, will help keep out bad elements.

"If you look at the crime statistics … our location on 495 is an oasis unto itself," he said.

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