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Local voters would rule on casino idea

Specifics emerging on Patrick's plan

Voters would have to approve a casino for their community before a developer could win one of the gaming licenses envisioned in Governor Deval Patrick's plan to legalize casino gambling, a top adviser to the governor said yesterday.

Daniel O'Connell, Patrick's economic development secretary and chief gaming adviser, said the local ballot requirement would be included in casino legislation that Patrick plans to file with the Legislature next week. The requirement raises the prospect of a citywide election and expensive referendum campaign in Boston to approve a casino at Suffolk Downs or another site.

It also enhances the potential for "not in my backyard" resistance by giving communities the right to reject gambling.

The legislation would require a binding referendum and mandate that the ballot question be put to voters before developers even submit a bid for one of the three licenses that would be available around the state under the governor's plan. Middleborough voters have already voted in favor of a Mashpee Wampanoag casino for their town in July.

The bill, which outlines the rules for bidding on a license, does not name specific casino sites, but identifies three regions of the state that could host a casino: metropolitan Boston, Southeastern Massachusetts, and Western Massachusetts. Depending on how the map is drawn, it could set off bidding wars among developers looking to open casinos in the same region.

The metropolitan region, for example, encompasses both Boston and the Interstate 495 area in Marlborough eyed by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, said O'Connell. That raises the prospect of competition between Adelson and the Suffolk Downs developers for one of the three casino licenses.

O'Connell, who expressed no preference for any site, said that no urban casino proposal is doomed, as long as the site is large enough for the kind of first-class resort casino the governor envisions with hotels, entertainment, restaurants, shops, and other amenities.

O'Connell's statements were a further clarification of the administration's approach since last week, when Patrick expressed misgivings about an urban casino. Patrick said last week he doesn't "think there is a city in Massachusetts that has enough space for that kind of facility, with the entertainment and the meeting venues and maybe a golf course, the restaurants, a hotel - the whole resort complex."

Senate President Therese Murray hinted yesterday that she may oppose any move to build a casino in Boston at Suffolk Downs. Murray told a small luncheon group that she's "not crazy" about putting a casino at the East Boston site. Asked about the fate of Suffolk Downs without a casino, she said she assumes the track's new owners would proceed with already announced plans for a hotel-condominium-horse racing complex.

House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi has expressed strong reservations about any casinos in Massachusetts, including Suffolk Downs, which he fears is too easily accessible by subway to low-income city-dwellers who cannot afford to gamble and lose.

O'Connell, laying out some details of the auction process, said bidders would at the minimum have to offer a range of amenities that are as extensive as Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut now offer.

Under the bill as currently drafted, the state would not auction all three licenses at once, but sequentially, allowing losing bidders from one auction to bid again on a different site. The licenses would be auctioned within 90 days of each other, the current draft says.

Participating in the process will not be cheap. Bidders would be required to pay a nonrefundable fee, currently $300,000, to have their application reviewed. They would pay an additional fee, as yet unspecified, to actually bid on a license.

O'Connell said that, in all, he expects 14 to 16 bidders to participate in the auction process. With that many bidders, even the losing bids could generate millions for the state. Once licenses are issued, he said, the state would begin to reap rewards immediately. Even though construction could take two to three years, the state would collect licensing fees up front. The Patrick administration has said the bidders will pay at least $200 million to win each license.

O'Connell predicted that casino gambling will finally come to Massachusetts, despite repeated failed efforts in the past to get a casino bill passed.

"I think it will [pass] because there is a compelling economic development and job growth component," he said. "The Legislature will feel any industry willing to spend billions of dollars to hire tens of thousands of people is one industry we should pay attention to."

In a Globe poll last month, a majority of Massachusetts residents, 53 percent, said they supported the governor's proposal. The support cut across all ages, races, and geographic areas.

The numbers indicated, however, that many would prefer that casinos be built outside their home community. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed who live in metropolitan Boston said they think casinos should be located in rural areas, while 36 percent of those living in the western part of the state said they believe casinos belong in cities.

Because Massachusetts residents are used to having Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun nearby, O'Connell said, much of the resistance has worn away.

Even if the governor files his bill next week, it could be months or longer before the measure is acted on by the Legislature. DiMasi has said he doesn't expect the House to debate the matter this year.

When he unveiled his proposal two weeks ago, Patrick said that casinos would generate 20,000 new jobs and $2 billion annually in economic activity. The casinos would also pay the state more than $400 million in yearly taxes that would be used to repair roads and bridges and provide tax relief to cash-strapped homeowners, he said.

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