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Boston officials worry state gaming commission could delay a Boston-area casino license

For many people, the city of Boston has waited long enough to get a casino. But now that a year has passed since Gov. Deval Patrick signed the expanded gambling law, Boston officials are worried that wait could get much longer.

Mayor Tom Menino’s host community advisory committee just wrote to theMassachusetts Gaming Commissionbecause of concerns that the commission could put unnecessary hurdles in front of a resort casino in Boston. Revere Mayor Dan Rizzo weighed in. And so did Suffolk Downs owner Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, which wants to build a casino at the Suffolk Downs racetrack property that straddles the Boston/Revere line.

The commission, created by the 2011 casino law, will consider a Christmas shopping list of policy issues in meetings this week that begin tomorrow. Many of these wide-ranging issues share an underlying question: Should the commission take the most deliberate approach to approving up to three resort casinos and one slots parlor allowed by the law, or the most expeditious one?

For example, the commission will discuss whether cities and towns should be forced to wait to approve host community agreements with casino developers until commission members have fully reviewed the developers’ initial casino applications. (They’re due Jan. 15.) The results might inform how these community agreements are drafted. However, by not allowing the application reviews and the host community agreements to happen on parallel paths, there’s a real possibility that the casino license approval process could take an additional six months or more.

Then there’s the concept of considering the casino applications in phases, by region. Presumably, the idea would be to allow the rivals for the western Massachusetts license to battle it out first. The losers there would then have the option to come to the Boston area and compete with Suffolk Downs for the one license available for this region. That could theoretically boost competition for the Boston area license. (Suffolk Downs is the only one in the running right now, though others are considering it.)

But giving western Massachusetts the first crack at a casino could also delay the arrival of a Boston-area casino for many months. The Menino task force says cities that are ready to go shouldn’t be penalized, potentially losing out on the financial benefits a host community agreement will provide.

Boston and Revere officials also aren’t happy that the gaming commission is considering giving itself more control over what should go into these host agreements. The city officials argue that the Legislature clearly intended local control when it comes to these host agreements and the handling of referendum votes necessary to pass them.

Of course, Suffolk Downs has a lot at risk if this licensing system gets further delayed. In 2007, Richard Fields invested in Sterling Suffolk Racecouse, becoming its largest shareholder, placing his bets that someday Massachusetts would legalize casino gambling. So he was here five years ago. The longer any new rivals have to make their case, the tougher the bidding could be for Suffolk Downs. And there’s a chance that this casino process could get dragged into the 2013 fall elections, when there’s a relatively strong likelihood that Menino doesn’t run again. (Menino is generally pro-casino, but health concerns may prompt his retirement.)

Sure, there’s been a lot of talk about why there hasn’t been more competition for a Greater Boston license and what, if anything, the commission should be doing to ensure that.

But it’s worth noting that the Legislature, in its misguided wisdom, already delayed the resort casino designated for southeastern Massachusetts by giving the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe a head start against the competition there. (A tribal casino on non-tribal lands, as state lawmakers envisioned for the tribe, is fraught with legal complexities.)

We’re about to see whether the gaming commission wants to put similar, albeit less severe, hurdles in front of the applicants for the Boston-area casino license.

Source- Boston Business Journal Dec. 10, 2012   Written by: Jon Chesto