By Michael Norton
State House News Service
BOSTON -- On the heels of the expanded gambling law's two-year anniversary, the chairman of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission says it may be three more years before a Bay State casino opens, and called online wagering a "major unknown question" on the gambling horizon.
The November 2011 law calls for up to three resort casinos, with one targeted for each of three regions, and one facility with up to 1,250 slot machines anywhere in the state.
But voters in several Massachusetts communities -- East Boston, Milford, and Palmer this month alone -- have already turned down casino proposals, and only a few projects remain in the vetting pipeline, with site-specific applications due at the end of December.
The commission was formed 18 months ago and has already spent more than $10 million investigating bidders, costs that were absorbed by casino applicants, Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby said during a televised interview that aired Sunday on WCVB's "On the Record."
During the interview, Crosby estimated that a slots parlor would probably open in late 2014 or early 2015, but cautioned that negotiations with surrounding communities may cause hang-ups. Crosby then estimated that a casino may not open its doors in Massachusetts for 2 1/2 to three more years, or until mid- to late-2016.
The Cordish Cos. of Baltimore have proposed a slots-only casino on Jungle Road in Leominster, just off Interstate 190.
While he called it "highly unlikely" and "totally speculative," Crosby acknowledged the possibility of relaunching the application process if gaming regulators do not believe they have a quality bidder.
"I see no reason why we wouldn't open it up and just do this over again," he said.
Crosby added: "There are plenty of people that want to do business in Massachusetts, and there are, obviously, plenty of towns that want to have a casino. It's just an issue of matching a quality bidder-applicant-operator with a willing community. They're out there."
Gov. Deval Patrick, who signed the 2011 law, declined to say Monday whether he thought three more years seemed like too long to wait for a casino to open or whether that's the time frame he envisioned.
"What we envisioned was that the Gaming Commission would take its work seriously, that they would be thorough, and they would be careful, and I think they have been," Patrick said.
Upon passing their bill in 2011, lawmakers predicted that expanded gambling would create 10,000 to 15,000 long-term jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new state revenue. They laid out plans to distribute gaming revenues for local aid, health-care payment reform, education and community colleges, transportation infrastructure, manufacturing, debt reduction and tourism.
While there's still time for those goals to be achieved, the focus since the law's passage has been on the extensive licensing process.
In western Massachusetts, the only remaining proposal is for a casino in Springfield. A commercial developer wants to build a casino in New Bedford, but the Gaming Commission is so far letting an uncertain tribal gaming process play out in Washington, where the Mashpee Wampanoag are making their case for a casino in Taunton.
In the east, casino developers in Everett are still on track but face competition from neighboring Revere, where there's disagreement over the legality of still-developing casino plans.
Crosby dismissed the idea that the public won't reap the benefits of competition among casino developers, asserting that benefits of competition had "already accrued" earlier in the process when more potential casino developers were crafting their plans.
"Part of the benefit of the competition was to make sure that we had quality people standing at the end of the day," Crosby said. "We knew we were going to lose some people, whether it was in referenda or background checks."
As the licensing authority, the commission has leverage to negotiate casino details with applicants.
"We do not have to award a license," Crosby said. "We may award up to one in each of these three regions. So we have the authority to negotiate for whatever we want."
Crosby called the 2011 law "very complicated" and said the process is adhering to legislative directives aimed at honoring local control by requiring host-community agreements, surrounding-community agreements and live-entertainment venue agreements.
"It's a long process," he said.
Casino opponents plan on Wednesday to submit the first round of requisite signatures to place an initiative petition on the 2014 ballot repealing the casino law. Attorney General Martha Coakley has ruled the petition ineligible for the ballot because contract rights are considered property and may not be "taken" by an initiative petition. Her aides have argued that casino applicants have invested significantly in the application process and have a reasonable expectation and "implied contractual right" that it will play out.
The proposal's eligibility will likely be determined by the Supreme Judicial Court should activists remain on track for the 2014 ballot. Petition organizers said they expect a justice to hear the case in early 2014.
"We're not really watching it carefully because it's got such a long time to play out," Crosby said. "We've got so many issues before us that we do have to deal with."
With bills dealing with online gambling pending in Congress and before state legislatures, Crosby said Gaming Commission member James McHugh is examining the issue, and that the commission is "working hand in glove" with Treasurer Steven Grossman, who oversees the state Lottery.
Calling online gambling a "major unknown question," Crosby said, "We also have taken the position that Massachusetts shouldn't do anything in online gambling until our bricks-and-mortar people are selected because they ought to be at the table when we do this. You can't expect somebody to give us $85 million and then spend a billion to build a facility and change the rules of the game on them a year or two down the road."
While predicting that online "will clearly be a disruptive technology for gambling, as it is for everything else," Crosby said it's difficult to assess its ultimate impact.
"It's a very good question, and the truth is, nobody knows any more than when online retailing started," he said. "Was that the future of retailing? Was Amazon going to eliminate bricks and mortar? Everybody has theories."