LEOMINSTER — The richest guy Cheryl Morrill ever met showed up at her home unannounced in the middle of her weekend yard work, eager to change her mind about the gambling industry.
“Maybe it would help with your taxes when we’re paying $4 million a year?” suggested David Cordish, a slim 73-year-old with a Hollywood-white smile, pitching plans to build a slots parlor in Leominster.
It is one of Cordish’s go-to arguments for the project, which the chairman of Cordish Cos. and its real estate empire delivered personally on Saturday, house after house, like a candidate for city office.
Although still undecided, Morrill, 65, was impressed to learn later she may have just met her first billionaire.
“God love him,” she gushed. “That’s why he has such pretty teeth.”
As gambling projects have cropped up in communities around the state, wealthy developers and their billion-dollar companies have found themselves at the mercy of local voters who control the fate of enormously expensive — and potentially lucrative — casino projects.
Developers have plied voters with media ads, billboards, and glossy mailings. They have sought favor with charitable donations, hand-delivering oversized checks with lots of zeros. They have appeared on low-budget home-grown cable access shows and submitted themselves to interminable town hall meetings.
And now Cordish has pushed the trend to its ultimate. The gambling mogul has personally beat the streets for votes.
Residents of this north-central Massachusetts city vote Tuesday on Cordish’s $200 million project, planned for a site near the junction of Route 117 and Interstate 190. Cordish is the final slots parlor applicant to face the voters of its host community in a mandatory referendum. If approved at the ballot box, the project will move forward as one of three competitors for the state’s only slots license.
Cordish could not, or would not, say on Saturday if he is indeed a billionaire. “I’ve never added it up,” he said.
He has been called a billionaire by his hometown Baltimore Sun. “I’ve been called worse,” he said.
Cordish landed in Leominster — known as the birthplace of Johnny Appleseed — after Boxborough and Salisbury rebuffed the company’s overtures.
Gambling opponents in the community of 40,000 people say the Cordish project will change the city and its country feel. “The following week after the vote we have the Johnny Appleseed festival,” said opponent Donna Fiduccia of Leominster. “It just does not go hand-in-hand with a slots parlor, you understand? Johnny Appleseed and a slot parlor?”
While Cordish knocked on doors, opponents demonstrated in downtown Leominster against the proposal, using recycled campaign signs donated by a Millbury antislot group, which didn’t need them after a local applicant withdrew.
“This is a home-grown, grass-roots, volunteer, low-budget, out-of-our pocket operation,” said opponent Arline Stith.
Cordish is confident the measure will pass in Leominster, but he was taking no chances over the final campaign weekend. Wearing jeans, white sneakers, and a dark blazer on a sunny morning, Cordish hustled for votes. He started in a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes, rhododendron bushes, and neatly cut lawns.
“Our competitors may be smarter than we are,” he said. “They may be richer than we are. But they will not outwork us.”
He said he still works about 100 hours a week in the family development and entertainment company. Cordish has developed Hard Rock casinos in Florida, in partnership with Suffolk Downs principal owner Richard Fields, and in 2012 opened the Maryland Live casino outside Baltimore.
He has knocked doors on previous projects, too, he said.
“I want people to understand we’re a family business and that they’ll be dealing with us,” he explained. “When the chairman is out there knocking on your door, it sends a message that we want to be part of the community.”
At one house, a man shouted through the screen that he was too busy to come to the door. It was tomato-canning day, he said, so if you have something to say, be quick about it.
The developer got about two sentences into his pitch when he was interrupted: “I know — I’m voting for it.”
Cordish was swiftly on his way, recalling what a wise lawyer once told him: When the court is with you, stop talking.
“We’re showing up without an appointment,” he said. “If people want to rush you, you’ve got to be willing to be rushed.”
Resident Diane Richard confirmed to Cordish that she favored the development. “We like revenue more than we like you,” she teased him.
“I’m overwhelmed with the support so far,” said Cordish, of his day’s encounters. “I haven’t had to do any work.”
A couple painting their garage door barely glanced in Cordish’s direction during his pitch, until he mentioned he is the chairman of the company proposing the project.
Suddenly they were interested and peppering him with questions.
“I might have turned them,” Cordish said later.
If voters endorse the slots proposal at the referendum, Cordish will compete against a Penn National Gaming project at Plainridge Racecourse, in Plainville, and a slots development plan at Raynham Park, the former dog track in Raynham. The state gambling commission hopes to award the license by the end of the year.
A few days after meeting Cordish, Morrill still had not decided how to vote, she said in a follow-up interview. She appreciated Cordish’s arguments about generating revenue and jobs for the community but was concerned about irresponsible drinking and drunks on the road.
And she still could not believe she had met the developer while cleaning up acorns in her yard, dressed in paint-splattered sweat pants and holding a rake.
“I really am much cuter than I appeared,” she said.