Business

shirley Leung

In casino battle, one big winner and a long list of losers

Like any good high stakes poker tournament, the Boston casino licensing produced one big winner and a long list of losers.

Steve Wynn walked away with the biggest jackpot in Massachusetts gaming. He blew into town on his jet, flashing an unnaturally white smile, showing that he can play the insider game better than the locals.

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Suffolk Downs and Mohegan Sun may have had former House speaker Charlie Flaherty, former Deval Patrick chief of staff Doug Rubin, and ex-attorney general Tom Reilly doing their bidding. But Wynn built his own team with the best that money can buy — former Governor Bill Weld and ML Strategies CEO and ex-Massport honcho Steve Tocco.

Perhaps most remarkably, Mr. Vegas showed he didn’t need to cozy up to any mayor of Boston to get his way. My, have times changed.

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Now, former mayor Tom Menino didn’t exactly act like himself on this issue. Once Suffolk Downs dumped Caesars as its casino operator last fall, Menino folded his cards on a project he once was giddy about. It’s as if the mayor (almost) for life had looked at the calendar, discovered he was a lame duck, and decided to leave the gambling quagmire to his lucky successor.

Menino, who drove a hard bargain with Caesars for a lucrative host community deal for Boston, didn’t get out the vote for an Eastie casino in November. In turn, residents rejected the plan in dramatic fashion.

New mayor Marty Walsh tried to salvage his bad hand after Suffolk Downs revived its casino dream by moving the proposed complex a few hundred yards to the Revere side of the horsetrack.

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Imagine walking into the fifth floor of City Hall, and on your to-do list that week is to make a decision on what amounts to an economic earthquake for city coffers.

It seemed like the Walsh administration bet the house on Mohegan Sun after lining up a rich surrounding community deal, while leaving Wynn and the gaming commission hanging out to dry for not understanding that the city deserved more. The casino was the first big battle of Walsh’s administration — and it showed the rookie was in over his head.

Any good manager prepares for the worst case scenario. And that’s what Boston — and in particular, the residents of Charlestown — faces. Boston gets all the headaches of a casino next door in Everett without much money to ease the pain, from traffic to social ills. Walsh will continue to put up a good fight, but short of suing, his luck seems to have run out.

Perhaps the only strategy left is to make amends with Wynn over a bowl of oatmeal at the mayor’s Savin Hill hangout, McKenna’s Cafe. The diner has a way of bringing together winners and losers.

As losers go, you have to feel for Suffolk Downs. Legalized gambling has long been pushed by the various owners of aging horsetrack straddling East Boston and Revere. It was billed as a way to save horseracing industry — and hundred of jobs — in Massachusetts. But we knew it was also a way for a few folks to make a lot of money.

Concessionaire king Joe O’Donnell and hotel/entertainment impresario Richard Fields were the latest left holding the bag on this losing bet. O’Donnell, who has kept a low profile throughout the licensing process, recently joked nervously about how unlucky he has been, saying he could become a “three strikes and out” guy. He tried to buy the Patriots, then the Red Sox. Could he at least open a casino? Nope.

But maybe with all that land, he could build Bob Kraft’s soccer stadium or talk to John Fish about turning Suffolk Downs into an Olympics venue.

The racetrack’s partner, Mohegan Sun, will live another day with its casino in Connecticut. The question now is whether the tribe, which supported the gambling legislation in Massachusetts, will switch sides and fight for the repeal question on the November ballot. When I spoke with Mohegan CEO Mitchell Etess last month, he told me he couldn’t think past the licensing process. Tick-tock, Mitchell, time to see your hand.

Gambling can be a winner-take-all game, and Wynn is ready to cash in his chips.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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