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Two years later, a shifting landscape for casinos

On the two-year anniversary of the Massachusetts gambling law, the casino license sweepstakes envisioned by lawmakers looks more like a demolition derby, with spurned competitors leaving behind shredded blueprints for gleaming gambling halls that will never be built.

But while the casino law signed by Governor Deval Patrick on Nov. 22, 2011, produced fewer final competitors than expected, it largely accomplished another primary goal of its authors: putting casinos only where they are wanted.

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Just 5 of 11 original Massachusetts casino or slot parlor applicants have unambiguously won support for their projects at the polls, but each of those winning votes has been a near-landslide or better.

The lowest margin of victory for a casino or slot parlor at referendum was in Springfield in July, when voters gave MGM resorts a still-healthy 58 to 42 percent win. It is the only proposal to survive the voters in the hunt for the Western Massachusetts resort casino license.

In the eastern region, a casino proposal by Wynn Resorts in Everett won 86.5 percent of the vote in a June referendum, the highest percentage recorded in any of the Massachusetts gambling votes this year, according to figures compiled by the state gambling commission. Wynn is proposing a $1.3 billion resort on the Mystic River waterfront, on former industrial land that will need to be cleaned up.

Among the three surviving applicants for the state’s sole slot parlor license, Penn National Gaming won 76 percent of the vote in Plainville, Cordish Cos. won 62 percent in Leominster, and Raynham Park won 86 percent in Raynham.

The wide margins of victory ensure that the gambling commission, which controls the licenses, can avoid the tricky question about whether to license a compelling proposal in a divided community that only narrowly approved the project.

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Boston College professor and casino expert Richard McGowan noted that recent statewide polling suggests more than 60 percent of Massachusetts adults still support casino gambling in Massachusetts, despite recent losses by the industry. And while most people do not want casinos in their backyards, the winning projects were strategically proposed “in locations that were not going to inconvenience a lot of people,” McGowan said. “Take Everett — a chemical dump? What else are you going to do with it?”

One of the architects of the legislation to legalize casinos, state Senator Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, said the law is working as legislators designed.

“It was intended to build a competitive, robust gaming market ensuring all the while the licenses would be given to reputable, capable firms that can produce what they are promising,” he said in an interview, “and at the same time giving local control over the decision as to whether it would be built in your community. . . . It’s playing out as expected, for the most part.”

The exception may be in East Boston, where voters rejected the Suffolk Downs casino proposal the same day Revere voters approved it, in an unanticipated split vote.

The state gambling commission has not decided if it will accept the results of the Nov. 5 Revere referendum as a viable local endorsement of the track’s new plans for a Revere-only casino.

If Suffolk Downs cannot move forward, the state’s two currently available resort casino licenses would each have only one applicant backed by voters. On Nov. 19, Milford voters killed a Foxwoods proposal that was also competing for the Greater Boston license.

In the western region, residents of Palmer defeated a Mohegan Sun proposal and West Springfield voters rejected a Hard Rock resort plan.

The competition remains open for the third license, in the southeast, where the Mashpee Wampanoag have been pursuing a tribal casino.

Carl Jenkins, who has studied the state’s gambling market, says the limited competition offers little incentive for developers to continue to improve their proposals.

“I was hoping you’d see more of a bidding war for the hearts and minds of the Commonwealth,” said Jenkins, managing director at the financial firm Duff & Phelps.

Casino executives had also expected a toe-to-toe fight, but the gambling industry underestimated the state’s local approval process, said Roger Gros, publisher of Global Gaming Business magazine.

“This local referendum being part of the law is really kind of a pain in the neck for the industry,” he said. “If you get people riled up and get them out to vote then you can undo the work all those companies have done, and the thousands of jobs that can come from that.”

Casino opponent Brian Herr, who fought against the Milford project, agrees that the state law is faulty, but for an entirely different reason — he believes voting rights should be expanded to communities around each casino proposal.

“What’s happening across the Commonwealth is the residents and voters are better informed and understand the trials and tribulations that come with a casino,” he said, explaining the recent losses for the industry.

Stephen Crosby, chairman of the gambling commission, said the panel could be satisfied with just one applicant each for the two resort licenses. He said the commission has enthusiastically encouraged competition because the members anticipated the referendums or tough state background checks could thin the field.

“We knew that there would be people who would lose referendums,” he said. “We knew, or expected, there’d probably be people who had background problems — otherwise there’s no point in having the background checks. So we knew we’d probably lose people and we wanted to be sure we’d have somebody good at the end.”

Neither MGM nor Wynn has yet passed the state background check. The commission has set a Dec. 9 hearing to review the MGM investigation and a Dec. 16 hearing for Wynn.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.

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