State gaming regulators decided Wednesday to allow an expansion of Encore Boston Harbor casino to a site across Broadway in Everett from its current location to move forward, interpreting the city’s 2013 casino referendum in Everett to have included the site across the street.
Encore parent company Wynn Resorts plans to construct a new building on what’s now surface parking lots across Broadway, to host a dedicated poker room, a second sports betting parlor, a relocated nightclub, a theater, parking garage and more. It would be connected to the casino by a pedestrian bridge.
The question the regulators had to answer Wednesday was whether the language of Everett’s June 22, 2013, referendum authorized casino gaming at just the location specified on the ballot or whether voters approved of a casino license generally -- Wynn at the time was looking from a green light from voters before it could secure a license. The casino can move ahead with some version of its planned development either way, but it can only offer sports betting and poker there with the commission’s agreement that such an expansion was something the 2013 voters understood they were voting on.
The Gaming Commission ruled last March that a previous version of Wynn’s development proposal — one that did not include poker or sports betting — would not be part of the casino’s official gaming establishment and therefore would not fall under commission jurisdiction or oversight, the outcome that Encore had lobbied for.
But once sports betting was legalized in Massachusetts last summer, the casino company changed its plans and now wants its “east of Broadway” expansion to include both casino gaming (poker) and sports betting, which would require the facility to be considered part of the official gaming establishment and regulated by the commission. With the decision Wednesday, the full project can now be reviewed in greater detail by the Gaming Commission and other city and state officials.
The precise question before Everett voters in 2013 was: “Shall the City of Everett permit the operation of a gaming establishment licensed by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to be located at the property located on Horizon Way (off ‘Lower Broadway’) in Everett, formerly known as the Monsanto Chemical Site?”
The state’s gaming law prescribed the referendum language and required that it include a description of the proposed location, but it does not at all address expansion of gaming establishments.
The commission voted 4-1 to decide that the expansion was contemplated in the language of the 2013 referendum and the host community agreement between the casino and city. Commissioner Eileen O’Brien was the dissenter, telling other regulators that she viewed the 2013 approval as “site specific” and that she is uncomfortable with the fact that no one was able to clearly define for her the boundaries of the location that was approved in 2013.
“I’m not opining on the appropriateness of the proposed expansion, what it would do; I think the plans for revitalization are fantastic for that area. What I am not satisfied with is any request that we say, ‘You can expand, but I still can’t tell you where the end of the expansion can go.’ I am not comfortable with the ‘I know it when I see it’ response,” O’Brien said. “But more importantly, I still don’t know where the outer boundaries of this are. And I don’t think that what we’re doing today is the end of the discussion, because I feel like this is going to continue to happen.”
The other four commissioners said they were satisfied that city voters understood in 2013 that the reference to the former Monsanto site was essentially shorthand for a larger section of the lower Broadway neighborhood. Commissioner Brad Hill pointed to language in the casino-city agreement that directly addressed how the city’s impact fee could increase if the casino expanded as a sign that “they expected that there would be some type of expansion in that area, not specific to the location that they are currently in.”
“If I was to think of the word casino, if I shut my eyes, and someone told me ‘Well, there’s going to be an expansion at a casino.’ I would think most people — not all, but most people — would think ‘Well, if there’s an expansion at a gaming facility, there’s probably going to be an expansion of gaming as well,’” Hill said. “I think most people in Everett who voted, I think they truly understood what they were voting for.”
Everett told the commission that it views its 2013 referendum as sufficient to allow this expansion of the Encore casino, and said that it expects it would cost the city at least $130,000 if it had to hold a new city election to put the expansion question to voters.