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Fresh faces join push to build casinos in Bay State

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / May 28, 2009
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The renewed quest on Beacon Hill to legalize gambling has attracted a fresh set of casino interests to Massachusetts, promising another high-dollar lobbying blitz in coming months by developers sensing potential for a big jackpot.

Steve Wynn, one of the most famous casino moguls in the world, is making a much more concerted effort to lobby for a casino in Massachusetts, hiring a lobbyist and sending a representative from his company here yesterday.

Boyd Gaming Corp., a Vegas-based casino company that has 16 gambling sites, including the Borgata in Atlantic City, has also hired a Bay State lobbyist for the first time and has been scouring for sites.

"The signals coming out of the capital are pointing to a fall debate on gaming," said Jeff Hartmann, chief operating officer of Connecticut's Mohegan Sun, which earlier this month set up a storefront location in Palmer to describe its casino plans for the Western Massachusetts town and drum up local support. "We thought the timing was right to open the doors and get to know the community."

Much of the recent flurry of activity has been driven by developers from outside Massachusetts, creating competing versions of what gambling in the Bay State should look like. Well-financed developers from around the country pushing for full casino resorts are up against local racetrack owners, who want Governor Deval Patrick and lawmakers to quickly install slot machine parlors at the racetracks.

The Mohegan tribe, for instance, is hoping to develop a resort featuring a 600-room hotel, a spa, a casino, restaurants, and shops on a site less than a mile from the Massachusetts Turnpike. Companies also have sent representatives to look at possible resort casino sites throughout the state, including property in Milford, Palmer, Raynham, and New Bedford.

Interest in the state's racetracks also is intense.

A developer from Penn National Gaming, which operates 19 facilities throughout the country, visited Raynham Park yesterday. Someone from Station Casinos Inc., which has 18 casinos in Nevada, is planning to visit today, George Carney, the track's owner, said. Carney also met in recent weeks with someone from Boyd Gaming, but says he is focused on keeping his track.

"I tell them, 'My company is not for sale,' " Carney said. "But we haven't decided what route we're going to take."

Gary Piontkowski, chief executive of Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville, has met with several developers, including Boyd, Penn National, and Station Casinos.

"They're around like flies to honey," Piontkowski said. "All of which we've resisted. We're Massachusetts guys, we've been around, and we're ready to go. These people, as soon as they smelled something it was, 'Me too.' I don't need someone to come into Massachusetts and tell us how to do this."

The other two tracks in Massachusetts, Suffolk Downs and Wonderland Greyhound Park, have already partnered to pursue a casino development.

Senate President Therese Murray spurred the renewed interest with a single act last month, pulling down her arm and saying, "Ka-ching" to a roomful of business executives. Her outspokenness in favor of gambling - along with the progambling stance of House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo - has developers looking more intently than last year, when former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi killed Patrick's casino bill.

"We're going to have gaming," Murray said yesterday. "It won't be soon. It will probably be later than sooner, but we're going to work on it.

"We'll have hearings in the fall, and we'll be prepared to move when those hearings are done," she added.

The debate is likely to be complicated by political differences. DeLeo wants slot machines at racetracks, while Patrick envisions resort casino developments. Murray has not expressed any preference. Gambling economics also will probably play a factor. Developers have struggled with the economic downturn, halting projects midstream, laying off employees, and putting off future developments.

But some remain optimistic that the industry may be ready for a rebound.

Wynn said in a conference call earlier this month that he was "cautiously optimistic that maybe we've seen the bottom." He also said, "If the stars line up, we might be an acquirer," but added, "We have no deal cooking."

Gary Loveman, a Massachusetts resident and chief executive at Harrah's Entertainment Inc., has been interested in Massachusetts and in possibly forming a partnership with Suffolk Downs. Sheldon Adelson, a Dorchester native and chief executive of Las Vegas Sands Corp., has sought to develop land near Marlborough.

One of the biggest question marks is where the casinos would be built.

There are various pockets of land available, including a large plot near Interstate 495 in Milford. The Turnpike Authority owns a swath of land off the Massachusetts Turnpike in Warren, which could be available.

Wynn, who was born in New Haven and later took over his family's Maryland-based bingo business, has developed lavish resorts - including the Bellagio, The Mirage, and Treasure Island - and has also expanded to Macau, where he is competing with Adelson.

Wynn last year also had discussions with Wonderland Greyhound Park owner Charles Sarkis, inquiring about the Revere property. The discussions did not become serious, and Wonderland later entered into a deal with Suffolk Downs to pursue a casino.

A subsidiary of Wynn Resorts Limited recently hired a Boston lobbying firm to pave the way on Beacon Hill. The subsidiary, Development Associates, also was among those bidding this month to build a casino at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York.

"Wynn believes that its financial strength and development expertise may be a good match for the state," said Nancy J. Sterling, a senior vice president at ML Strategies, the lobbying firm Wynn has retained. "Wynn is interested in participating in the process as it unfolds."

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