boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Suffolk Downs wants '08 gaming

Track will seek temporary casino

If they are able to secure a casino license, the operators of Suffolk Downs want to build a temporary casino as soon as July, an aggressive timeline that could possibly introduce slot machines and gaming tables - and their economic benefits and social impacts - much earlier than Governor Deval Patrick's proposal.

The move sets up a potential conflict with Patrick, who so far has avoided discussing temporary casinos that would generate quick money, and instead has been trying to project an image of full-scale resort-style casinos, complete with golf courses and luxury hotels that would create 20,000 jobs by 2012.

"It's contrary to the governor's plan for destination resort casinos, which focuses on economic development and creating good jobs and good wages," said press secretary Kyle Sullivan, who declined to elaborate further. "The administration would not be supportive of temporary casinos."

Patrick has yet to submit his proposal to the Legislature, but Suffolk Downs' proposal for a temporary site would have hundreds of millions of dollars in gaming revenue streaming in within months. Track officials, who have a team of lobbyists and the support of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, estimate the temporary casino would generate $216 million in total tax revenues in the first year.

Officials at Suffolk Downs say they envision using about 180,000 square feet at their current facility to develop the temporary casino. Plans will include keeping the racetrack. The complete complex, including a casino, hotel, and theater and be done in two phases, would, developers hope, be finished by July 2013.

The timeline, included in a packet presented to Patrick officials July 5, assumes that the state will legalize gambling and provide Suffolk Downs with one of the three casinos licenses by April 2008.

"Our preliminary assessment shows that Suffolk Downs can provide a dynamic tourist attraction that meets Governor Patrick's goal for jobs, revenue, and positive economic impact," said Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer for Suffolk Downs. "We have only recently started our plans for potential development, and we will share those with local stakeholders and officials as they move forward.

"We believe these plans will be consistent with the governor's visision," he added.

After the temporary casino opened, Suffolk officials said they would begin a larger, permanent project, utilizing 10,000 construction workers doing double shifts seven days a week. By 2011, they plan to build a 4.5 million-square-foot complex that would include 5,000 slots and 150 gaming tables, a 2,000-seat theater, 1,000 hotel rooms, and 50 shops, according to documents provided to the Globe. The first phase would also include a spa, a nightclub, a massive parking complex, and a 100,000-square-foot conference area.

A second phase would include between 2.7 million and 6.7 million square feet of additional entertainment facilities, conference space, hotels, and shops. They estimate 5,600 full-time jobs, paying on average more than $40,000 per year, would be created.

Track officials are creating a master plan for the resort and expect to have architectural renderings later this fall.

The governor last week detailed a plan to license casinos in three regions - Southeastern Massachusetts, Western Massachusetts, and an area that includes Boston and points north. All three licenses would be put up for competitive bid.

Casino developers in other parts of the country commonly proceed with temporary facilities while planning and building major hotel resorts. State legislation usually includes a provision to ensure that the permanent casinos are built within a certain period of time.

In Detroit, for example, the MGM Grand opened a temporary casino in July 1999 inside a former Internal Revenue Service office building. Five months later, MotorCity Casino opened in a former Wonder Bread factory. A third casino, Greektown, opened in a temporary facility in November 2000. Those operators are all now opening their permanent casinos and 400-room hotels.

Other groups hoping to open a casino in Massachusetts said they are not planning to open temporary casinos, which could give Suffolk Downs an early leg up in the market.

Scott Ferson, spokesman for the Mashpee Wampanoag, said the tribe his no plans for a temporary casino. "I'm not sure that's what the governor's vision is," Ferson said. "What he is talking about is a sustained revenue stream, and not quick cash."

The tribe is hoping to open a casino in Middleborough by 2012, with 4,000 slots, up to 150 gaming tables, and a 1,500-room hotel.

Charles Bunnell, spokesman for the Mohegan Tribe, which is looking at building a casino in Palmer, said it had no current plans for a temporary casino but did not rule it out.

The owners of Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere are also planning to bid for a casino license, which would put them in competition with Suffolk Downs for the license Patrick envisions for the Boston area. Officials at Wonderland are putting together an investment team. They said they would tear down the dog track and use their 36 acres to build a hotel, casino, and entertainment complex.

For years, Suffolk Downs officials have hoped to add a casino to improve the fortunes of their ailing racetrack, which has seen attendance fall dramatically with the rise of state lotteries, casinos, and Internet gambling.

Richard Fields, who earlier this year purchased the largest ownership interest in Suffolk Downs, was a co-developer of the Seminole Hard Rock Casino and Hotel Resorts in Tampa and Hollywood, Fla.

One major hurdle for Suffolk Downs could be potential height and light restrictions because the casino would be beneath the flight path of passenger jets taking off and landing at Logan International Airport.

Suffolk Downs is less than 1.5 miles from one of Logan's busiest runways, and aviation specialists say the track owners almost certainly would face hurdles from the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates the airport, and the Federal Aviation Authority, which controls its air traffic.

"They will be limited in the height they will be able to build, and I doubt they would be able to justify any appeal on any economic grounds," said John Hansman, director of MIT's International Center for Air Transportation. "It doesn't make sense to reduce the capacity of an international airport to have gambling in close proximity to the city."

The FAA cannot stop a project from being approved by local officials, but it could declare a project a "hazard to air navigation," and could limit the amount of air traffic into a runway or close it altogether.

State and federal officials would also review the lighting, which most casinos use to illuminate their hotels and draw patrons to the facilities but could become a hindrance for pilots.

Suffolk Downs officials met recently with Massport to discuss their plans, particularly over increased traffic and building heights. Suffolk agreed to come back when more details on their buildings were known.

Track officials say that few infrastructure improvements would be needed, because the track is located just off of Route 1A, a four-lane highway, and is accessible by several major interstates and two subway stops. Their 163 acres of land is also self-contained and is not in a residential area.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

More from Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES