Joan Vennochi

High stakes for casino license in Massachusetts

Massachusetts’ biggest players warm up for a casino location battle

Aram Boghosian/Globe Staff/ iStockphoto; Photo illustration/Globe Staff

SO MUCH for inevitability.

Suffolk Downs is supposed to have the inside track when it comes to winning a casino license, just like Mitt Romney is supposed to have the inside track on winning the Republican presidential nomination. But now, just as Romney faces unexpected competition from rival Newt Gingrich, Joe O’Donnell & Co. face unexpected competition for their Suffolk Downs vision from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and casino mogul Steve Wynn.

Kraft and Wynn are proposing a $1 billion resort casino and business convention complex across from Gillette Stadium. Those with long memories might even call it a “megaplex’’ — a variation of the stadium and convention complex Kraft wanted to be part of in South Boston back in the late 1990s. After Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino shot down that idea, Kraft took his football home to Foxborough. Now he wants to take his dice there, too, setting up another showdown with the mayor who let him down once before.


The battle is joined and the stakes are high. This isn’t about “legacy’’ or repairing the “social fabric,’’ as Kraft babbled with Gingrich-like grandiosity during roll-out interviews. This is about super-rich people making themselves even richer. That’s why Kraft and Wynn want to build a casino at Gillette Stadium and why O’Donnell and his backers want to build one at Suffolk Downs.

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Under the state’s new gambling law, there can only be one winner in eastern Massachusetts. That means someone has to lose, which sets up a good, old-fashioned Boston power struggle over bragging rights and bazillions of dollars. O’Donnell, who lost a previous bid to buy the Boston Red Sox, is something of a perpetual bridesmaid in these scenarios. But he does have Menino and House Speaker Robert DeLeo in his corner. Kraft and Wynn might have Governor Deval Patrick on their side. At a minimum, they have Patrick’s contention that the suburbs make a better casino venue.

You could argue that Foxborough is the better spot — as long as you don’t live there, and as long as you don’t really believe Wynn is going to build a gambling complex designed to blend into its “bucolic’’ New England backdrop. What’s he talking about? A casino disguised as a church steeple? A village green lined with show girls?

Suffolk Downs, meanwhile, is not a scenic destination and never will be unless you enjoy looking at gas tanks. Besides, traffic in a vicinity that close to the airport is already a hassle. Menino proudly cites access to the MBTA Blue Line as a plus, but it also makes it easier for every gambling addict with a Charlie Card to hop on the T for the kind of quick fix that puts the grocery money at risk.

Under the new casino law, Kraft and Wynn must win a referendum vote in Foxborough before they can proceed. That same legislation cleverly requires approval only from East Boston and Revere residents for a gambling operation at Suffolk Downs. The Boston City Council could demand a citywide vote, but its members are probably too busy making sure ex-councilor Maureen Feeney becomes the next city clerk to get involved in something as important as the casino fight.


Advantage, O’Donnell — maybe.

A new, five-member state gaming commission will ultimately decide who gets the license. Patrick, Attorney General Martha Coakley, and state Treasurer Steve Grossman each pick one member; Patrick’s pick will chair the commission. The remaining two members are appointed by a majority vote of the governor, attorney general, and treasurer. The three state leaders recently put out a press release detailing an “open and transparent search process for gaming commission appointments.’’ The proverbial nationwide search is no doubt underway. Menino and DeLeo have no say in who is chosen. Advantage, Kraft.

And so our brave new world of expanded gambling begins. Already wealthy men wrap their quest for greater wealth in the promise of short-term construction jobs and longer-term employment for waitresses, bartenders, and croupiers. Massachusetts, which used to revel in its differences, becomes a little bit more like other places.

There’s so much money on the line, the only inevitability is a brutal battle for a piece of the action.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi.