EVERETT — Against the bronze glow of the towering Encore casino on a recent afternoon, Steve Crosby spotted a blue heron on the muddy banks of the Mystic River.
“Here he comes — gorgeous. Look at the wing span!” he said to me as we sat onboard one of the casino’s $1 million boats, pulling away from the dock to head back to Boston.
If you can believe it, the Encore Boston Harbor has been open for more than a month, and Crosby — who as the state’s first gaming commission chairman was instrumental in it coming about — had not yet checked out the casino until I invited him to lunch.
Over the course of about two hours, he walked the casino floor, posed for a picture with Jeff Koons’s $28 million Popeye sculpture, and gawked at the flower-covered carousel (“holy cow!”). For the most part, it was hard for the former gaming regulator to contain his enthusiasm. He acted as if the state had hit the jackpot.
“We wanted economic development, and we got it. We wanted a wow factor, and we got it,” Crosby, 74, said over a salmon burger at the casino’s Garden Café.
Since Massachusetts legalized gambling in 2011, perhaps no one in the state has lived and breathed casinos with more gusto than Crosby, whether it’s been crafting regulations or dealing with larger-than-life Las Vegas personalities looking to win a lucrative license.
And among the casinos that have opened in Massachusetts, no location was as anticipated — or as controversial — as Encore, owned by Wynn Resorts.
Crosby often found himself in the middle of the many controversies. He had to recuse himself from the 2014 vote on whether Wynn Resorts should get the coveted Greater Boston license after he attended a private party at Suffolk Downs celebrating opening day at the horsetrack. At the time, Suffolk Downs had teamed up with Mohegan Sun to compete against Wynn Resorts for the casino license. Prior to that, Crosby had to recuse himself from a review of Everett casino property after disclosing that he was a friend and former business partner of one of the landowners.
Crosby was in the crosshairs again last summer over the commission’s investigation into Wynn Resorts’s handling of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct levied against cofounder Steve Wynn. Wynn stepped down as CEO in 2018, but the commission wasn’t sure the company should keep its gaming license here. Representatives for Steve Wynn and Mohegan Sun accused Crosby of what Crosby described in his own resignation letter as “prejudging the outcome” of the review. Since losing to Wynn Resorts, Mohegan Sun, a tribal casino in Connecticut, has sought to overturn the decision and sued the commission alleging the licensing process was flawed.
Crosby, in his resignation letter, maintained that the process had been fair but that he did not want to become a distraction. Since then, the public hasn’t heard from the normally loquacious Crosby. Officially retired, he has helped launch a nonprofit called the Civic Action Project to develop the next generation of civic leaders.
There is a new gambling czarina — Governor Charlie Baker appointed Cathy Judd-Stein to the post in January. Wynn Resorts got to keep its license but under revamped and tougher conditions that included a $35 million fine. Crosby won’t talk about whether he would have done anything differently with the decision had he stayed on the commission.
But enough inside baseball. Back to his Encore visit.
The former gaming chairman isn’t much of a gambler and he didn’t try his luck last week — not even at the slots. Instead, he made a beeline to GameSense, a booth on the gaming floor that offers tips on how to gamble responsibly.
Then-governor Deval Patrick picked Crosby in large part because he’s a policy junkie. Crosby was dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, after having served as budget chief under Governor Paul Cellucci and chief of staff under Acting Governor Jane Swift. Gaming, for all its flash, is a wonky business that juggles regulation and politics with the dynamics of an ever-changing market.
Crosby couldn’t help but notice Encore’s “extraordinary luxury,” but what made the deepest impression on him was the transformation of the site, a long-abandoned Monsanto chemical plant that was a notorious toxic waste dump. Standing outside the casino overlooking a cleaned up riverfront, Crosby marveled at how Wynn went all-in — spending $2.6 billion on a gleaming monument to gambling that rivals the palaces of Las Vegas.
“Where would you ever get the vision and nerve to imagine it?” Crosby said as he walked along a paved path framed by meticulous flower beds of pink petunias, gold and orange marigolds, and orange sunpatiens.
“This is mindboggling,” he said. “The restoration is fantastic. . . . The curved escalators, the carousel, Popeye. They’re Vegas, but the waterfront is unique.”
That — after GameSense, of course — is what Crosby called his favorite part of Encore.
“Look at this place. I am going to take a picture of this,” he said as he walked toward the river’s edge to get a better glimpse of the flower beds, trees, and lawn.
Is there something he doesn’t like? Well, yes, but it’s minor. He said Encore needs better signage by the Long Wharf dock — it was hard for him to find where to catch the ferry.
And then there’s the question of whether Wynn Resorts can make a return on its investment. When the company won the license in 2014, it planned to spend only $1.6 billion, not a billion dollars beyond that.
“It’s got to cause everyone to pause,” Crosby said. “Now we all just hold our breath and hope it works.”
As for his role in shaping the state’s casino industry, here’s a bit of self reflection: “Even with many years of experience in high level politics and public life, I underestimated the PR, political and legal maelstrom that establishing casinos would engender. On top of it, I made my share of mistakes. So how has it worked out? I would say so far, so good. But the truth is we will not know the long-term cost/benefit trade-offs of destination resort casinos for years or even decades.”
Unless you’re a blue heron living the good life on this newly cleaned-up section of the Mystic. Crosby could be onto something: the biggest winner in Everett might be its riverfront.