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Massachusetts gaming chairman expects ‘robust competition’ for casinos as application deadline approaches – By Dan Ring, The Republican

BOSTON — The state’s chief casino regulator said he is hoping for “robust competition” among casino companies when potential developers submit applications next week.

He added that it is “terrific” that Western Massachusetts could see a new casino proposal on Friday.

Companies face a 5 p.m. deadline on Tuesday for filing $400,000 nonrefundable application fee with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, along with comprehensive and detailed materials. The submissions are for the commission’s background checks on top employees, officers and business entities, representing the first step of a two-part bidding process for casinos.

So far, only Penn National Gaming and MGM Resorts International, which are planning competing casinos in downtown Springfield, have filed with the commission both the $400,000 fee and the supporting materials. Two additional companies — the Suffolk Downs race track in Boston and its partner, Caesars Entertainment, plus the Plainridge Racecourse harness track in Plainville, which is bidding for a slots-only facility, — have provided the $400,000 fee.

The chief executive officer of the Mohegan Sun, which is planning a casino in Palmer and was the first company to put its stake in the ground in Western Massachusetts, told The Republican last week that the company will meet the deadline for providing the $400,000 and package for background investigations by the commission.

Chairman Stephen P. Crosby said competition could help assure the best possible deal for the people of Massachusetts.

“It’s just very simple,” Crosby said after the commission’s regular weekly meeting in Boston Thursday. “We really want to have robust competition for every license. If we have at least two competitors for every license, preferably more, we will think we have done a really important first step.”

Crosby also said he welcomed a possible new entrant in the casino sweepstakes in Western Massachusetts. The Eastern States Exposition plans to hold a “red carpet” event on Friday to announce the results of it’s “casino exploration.”

Crosby said he has no inside information and has only read in the media that Hard Rock International could be the proposed developer for a casino on the Memorial Avenue grounds of the exposition.

“It’s great, Crosby said. “I think it is terrific. It is an interesting site. We’ve always been encouraging Hard Rock. I encouraged Hard Rock to stick around and look hard. If they decide to be involved, that would be great.”

A total of 11 companies, including Hard Rock, had earlier meetings with commission consultants to scope out the applications for background investigations.

In a phone interview on Thursday, Timothy J. Wilmott, chief operating officer and president of Penn National, said the company submitted “the exact same” materials to the commission and to the city of Springfield on Jan. 3.

The city is conducting its own casino-selection process. Penn National and MGM also paid $250,000 fees to Springfield in addition to the state fees.

Penn National, working in partnership with Peter A., Picknelly, chairman and CEO of Peter Pan Bus Lines, is planning $807 million resort in the North End of Springfield including on properties owned by The Republican and the bus company.

Wilmott said he expects the company will be found suitable by the state and that the background checks will assure public trust and confidence in casino developers.

“We’re licensed in 20 different gaming jurisdictions,” Wilmott said. “We’re very familiar with the process.”

Also in a phone interview, Michael Mathis, vice president of global gaming development at MGM Resorts International, also said he does not anticipate any problems with the gaming commission’s background investigations.

“We’re confident,” Mathis said. “We’ve been through rigorous background checks many times in the past.”

MGM is planning an $800 million casino on 10 to 15 acres in the South End of Springfield.

Bruce Stebbins, a former Springfield city councilor and member of the commission, said companies face “a hard and fast” deadline on Tuesday for submitting the fee and materials.

“I’m encouraged,” Stebbins said. “We still continue to hear stories, thanks to our friends in the media, about where other possible projects may pop up. Generally, the commission is encouraged by the competition we have seen, as well as the level of investments some of these projects are talking about.”

The $400,000 fee is for paying for the extensive investigations on the casino companies.

“We’re going to be cooperative,” Crosby said. “If you come in at the last minute, we will do everything we can to get you in under the wire, because competition is good. We want competition but the deadline is the deadline.”

The commission hopes to decide by the end of June whether to approve the companies as suitable after the background investigations. If companies clear that hurdle, then they would submit specific development proposals for the projects they plan to construct. The commission plans to be prepared to accept those construction proposals sometime late this year and then award the first casino resort license sometime in February of next year.

Crosby said he is not concerned that only four companies have paid the fee to date.

“That doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “If it were me, I wouldn’t put in the $400,000 until 4:59 that day. Why would I give my money to someone else?”

Crosby said it appears as if at least one other company will present a bid to rival Suffolk Downs in the Boston area.

Stephen A. Wynn, the CEO of Las Vegas-based Wynn Resorts, is eyeing a possible casino at an old industrial site in Everett and would compete with Suffolk Downs for a license.

“Wynn and Caesars are the ones that seem to be the farthest along,” Crosby said. “They are both very substantial companies, powerful companies, powerful personalities. There would be a tremendous competition. We would be delighted if there were two.”

The state’s casino law provides for three licenses for large gambling resorts, with one license to be issued in each of three regions of the state. A slots-only license could be anywhere in the state.

No developer can offer a specific development site to the commission until the project has been ­approved by local voters in a referendum.

On Monday, the Springfield City Council, in a meeting to start at 7 p.m. at City Hall, will consider approving a citywide ballot vote on casino gambling.

Under the state’s casino law, the state’s three most populated cities, including Springfield , would have to hold a ward vote on a casino unless the governing body of a city chooses to put the question to all voters. Leaders in Springfield are expecting a city-wide vote.

The vote would need to be held at least 60 days after a casino company finalizes an agreement with a community. The vote in Springfield could be held as early as June or as late as November.

Also on Thursday, Karen M. Wells was announced as the commission’s new, $145,000-a-year director of its investigations and enforcement bureau. Wells, a former assistant attorney general and deputy chief of the public protection, anti-terrorism, corruption and technology unit for the Middlesex District Attorney, has been an undersecretary at the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

By Dan Ring, The Republican 
on January 10, 2013 at 9:09 PM, updated January 11, 2013 at 12:03 AM

Staff writer Peter Goonan contributed to this story