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editorial

State should cast a wary eye on building casino in phases

OUT IN Western Massachusetts, a potential bidding war for a casino license for the region has yielded lively discussions about how to reinvigorate Springfield and how best to secure benefits for the city. Here in the Boston area, though, the only bidder so far — a group involving the Suffolk Downs racetrack — has already begun tamping down expectations about what it might deliver when.

Its maneuverings should be a warning to potential casino sites across the state, and to a Massachusetts Gaming Commission charged with maximizing the long-term economic benefits of a problematic industry.

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Suffolk Downs, which straddles the line between Boston and Revere, is developing a casino plan in conjunction with Caesars Entertainment, whose CEO, Gary Loveman, raised the idea this summer of building a casino in phases. First would come the gambling facilities and some restaurant services; the hotel, spa, and other services would be built in a second phase. In other words, Suffolk Downs quickly gets the slot machines it’s craved for years, but the amenities that distinguish the property from a racetrack gambling hall would come only later.

State gambling regulators and local officials should be alert to the possibility that a promised second phase amenities might not come at all. To his credit, Mayor Menino, who has otherwise supported the racetrack’s casino drive, objected to the phasing proposal late last month. A stripped-down first phase would lack a “wow” factor needed to attract visitors and promote economic development, he said.

That’s a tactful way to put it.

In other states, casino companies have made extravagant promises and agreed to various restrictions to be allowed to begin operations, only to scale back their commitments and press for more advantageous rules soon thereafter. Caesars and Suffolk Downs may well intend to spend every dime of the $1 billion they’ve promised to spend. But the Commonwealth needs to protect its own interests and that of local communities, and that means demanding that any casino it authorizes be a destination facility from the get-go.

Massachusetts legislators have given the public ample grounds for apprehension. The horse track’s outsize political influence revealed itself in myriad ways during the debate over legalizing casinos in Massachusetts — the set-aside of state revenues for the racing industry is one example. The state gambling board needs to be steadfast against such pressures.

Potentially undermining the board’s leverage with Suffolk Downs is the possibility that no one else will seek the Boston­area casino license. Loveman, the Caesars chief, predicted as much this summer.

But no bidder should receive a casino license by default. To safeguard the public interest, the board needs to be prepared to walk away if what would-be casino operators propose isn’t satisfactory. Indeed, if there’s only one bidder for the Greater Boston license, the board should operate under the presumption that, unless there’s a dazzlingly impressive proposal on the table, it won’t issue a license at all.

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