Nine months after Massachusetts legalized casinos, the state gambling commission is ready to accept preliminary applications from prospective developers, opening the high-stakes competition for the few licenses in the $1.5 billion to $2 billion Bay State gambling market.
“It’s all been speculative until now,” said Stephen Crosby, the commission’s chairman, “but now the process really starts.”
Beginning Thursday, developers who want to compete for casino licenses in Massachusetts may submit a $400,000 application fee, along with a short certification form, to become official applicants for one of the state’s commercial casino licenses, he said. The $400,000 payment is nonrefundable.
Though a preliminary phase, the first step is still important on several fronts: For one, it will winnow out less-serious parties who cannot come up with the $400,000 fee; secondly, applicants who do pay up will now be able to get access to other Massachusetts agencies for information needed to develop their plans, such as environmental requirements and building regulations common to any large-scale construction project, Crosby said.
“The state agencies don’t want to work with some person willy-nilly,” he said. “But if you put up your $400,000, then you’re serious, so we will start putting you in touch with state agencies.”
‘I’ve been waiting 15 years to officially become an applicant.’
The $400,000 payment confers legitimacy at another important political level: within the community where a gambling company may want to open a casino. Under state law, those communities have the right to negotiate concessions to offset the effects of casino activity and, Crosby said, “don’t want to get jerked around and deal with developers who aren’t going to be for real.”
Applicants will be required to submit much more detailed information later this year and can expect to undergo a long and complex review that will stretch into 2013.
The commission did not expect to begin the application process until later this year, Crosby added, but accelerated its process because “there are [developers] who want to get going; they’re public. and they’re making no secret of it.”
Gary T. Piontkowski, president of Plainridge Racecourse harness track in Plainville, is eager to be the first to apply for a license. He sat through the commission’s several-hours- long meeting Tuesday with a $400,000 bank check at the ready, just in case the commission opened the application period even earlier.
“I’ve been waiting 15 years to officially become an applicant,” said Piontkowski. “For my partners and I, we’ve worked very hard to get to this day. It’s like a christening.”
Plainridge will be applying for the sole slot parlor license created by the state’s 2011 casino law. The law also creates three licenses for larger gambling resorts; no more than one resort license can be issued in each of three regions of the state.
Piontkowski said he has already begun negotiations with Plainville officials on an agreement for the town to accept up to 1,250 slot machines at the track.
Among the major players expected to compete for the gambling resorts are Suffolk Downs in East Boston, in partnership with casino giant Caesars Entertainment, for the Eastern Massachusetts license.
Western Massachusetts has the most competitors so far, including the operators of the Mohegan Sun casino for a location in Palmer, and Ameristar, MGM Resorts, Hard Rock International, and Penn National Gaming for various locations in Springfield.
In the third region, Southeastern Massachusetts, commercial casino development is on hold, pending efforts by a federally recognized Native American tribe, presumably the Mashpee Wampanoag, to develop a tribal casino. If the tribe can win federal approval for its plans to build in Taunton, the state commission is expected to not issue the one resort license allowed for that region.
In October the commission will release a more detailed qualification form that will require developers to provide information on company finances and the background of key employees and company officers. The commission will scrutinize the information, probably with consultants and investigators, to weed out companies with shaky balance sheets or with people of questionable character in key spots.
Companies that make the cut will be permitted to submit detailed development proposals for the projects they want to build. The commission hopes to be ready to accept those proposals sometime in early 2013.
No developer can make a detailed development proposal until the project has been endorsed by local voters in a referendum. The commission could choose the winning proposals as early as October 2013.