THE TOWN of Milford and casino developer David Nunes have negotiated what may be the strongest casino host-community agreement in the Commonwealth so far. The deal, which voters can approve or reject in a referendum on Tuesday, provides Milford a fat upfront payment and then an annual check of roughly $30 million in exchange for permission to build a casino on a granite quarry at the edge of town. The deal compares favorably to rival plans in Greater Boston: Nunes promises more money than casino developer Steve Wynn gave Everett, and avoids the eyebrow-raising financial arrangements and phased construction schedule that Suffolk Downs offered East Boston and Revere. Yet Milford voters must weigh those promises against lingering questions about the ability of Nunes and his partners to deliver on them.
Nunes, who has been pushing to build a casino in Milford since even before the Legislature passed the expanded gambling law in 2011, wants to build a 500-room hotel and casino with restaurants, retail, and 6,700 to 7,300 slot machines and table games. He has agreed to pay millions to bolster the fire and police departments and for a new highway exit off Interstate 495 to mitigate the casino’s traffic impact. The architectural drawings are surprisingly tasteful. And in a relatively small town like Milford, the big annual payments would amount to a giant boost.
Nonetheless, there are reasons for voters to think twice. Nunes waited until the last minute before reportedly choosing Gaming & Leisure Properties as a partner on Friday. That doesn’t leave voters with enough time to size up the team that’s asking to become a major presence in their community. In contrast, Everett voters knew exactly who they were voting on, and had months to decide whether to welcome Wynn. Milford residents at least have more information than voters in East Boston and Revere, who cast ballots on the Suffolk Downs plan earlier this month without knowing the identity of the casino operator or of some investors — but not by much.
And the other partner that Nunes has chosen, Foxwoods, poses some issues of its own. Foxwoods, controlled by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe in southeastern Connecticut, introduced large-scale casino gambling to New England when it opened its namesake casino on the Pequot reservation in Ledyard, Conn., in 1992. But despite the massive revenues Foxwoods generated, the tribe has been riven by mismanagement. It defaulted on some debts in 2009 and has a CCC+ bond rating from Standard & Poor’s. Last month, former tribal treasurer Steven Thomas pleaded guilty to theft from the tribe, becoming the latest senior tribal leader with a criminal record. The tribe also has a history of dipping its toe into markets outside Connecticut, only to retreat, leaving those projects in disarray. The current chief executive, Scott Butera, seems to have stabilized Foxwoods, but executives can come and go, while the tribe will remain. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission gave its blessing to Foxwoods’ participation on Friday, based on the particular individuals involved. But to some extent Milford would be pinning its fate to the tribe’s, and all of its past decisions are fair game for voters to consider.
Finally, there’s the question of whether Milford really needs a casino. In Everett and East Boston, the proposed casino plans supported broader goals: cleaning up a polluted site by the Mystic River in Everett’s case, and reviving a tattered but historic race track in East Boston. Both communities also arguably face greater economic challenges than Milford, which boasts a growing population and unemployment below the state average. Milford shouldn’t turn up its nose up at $30 million a year, but it’s not in desperate need, either.
The irony is that from a statewide perspective, the Milford proposal may well be the best plan in the Greater Boston region. Its suburban location should blunt some of the social impacts, and it seems best able to absorb the extra traffic without significantly harming local residents. The site also seems best positioned to capture more of the gamblers who now go to Connecticut or Rhode Island, fulfilling one of the original goals of the 2011 legislation to recapture lost revenue. Yet Milford voters have other factors to consider in their decision on Tuesday. They have to determine whether the attractiveness of the proposal and the extra revenue outweigh the lack of time to scrutinize Nunes’s financial backers and Foxwoods’ spotty track record.