The new Mohegan Sun casino proposal at Suffolk Downs will be allowed to compete for the Greater Boston casino license, after the state gambling commission offered Tuesday to waive its deadlines to permit a second referendum vote in Revere.
The commission’s much-
anticipated decision sets the stage for what is likely to be a bitterly fought two-month campaign during the dead of winter, followed by another citywide vote in Revere, probably around mid-February, on whether there will be casino gambling at Suffolk Downs.
The commission’s change applies only to the Dec. 31 deadline for the referendum and leaves intact a year-end deadline for Mohegan Sun to submit all plans and documents for its proposal. That will require the Connecticut casino giant, which announced a deal to build at Suffolk Downs on Nov. 27, with the burden of designing a casino proposal and traffic plan in just weeks.
Mitchell Etess, chief executive of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, said in a statement that the company looks forward to “working in cooperation with our host community of Revere on the path the commission outlined.”
The commission’s recommendation for another vote was a surprise twist in a monthlong drama that began Nov. 5, the night Suffolk Downs’s casino plan was rejected by voters in East Boston but embraced in Revere. Original plans called for a casino to be built on the East Boston side of the city line that passes through the racetrack’s property. Within hours of the vote, casino proponents suggested they would bypass the East Boston results by moving the proposal over the city line into Revere.
Casino opponents in East Boston argued that Revere’s Nov. 5 vote could not apply to a new project; proponents insisted that the original vote was enough.
The offer to lift the deadline for the referendum, proposed by commissioner James McHugh, is a compromise and perhaps the only outcome both sides hate equally.
“They made a mockery of the democratic process here,” said Celeste Myers, a leader of the No Eastie Casino group, which wanted the commission to refuse the Mohegan Sun proposal.
Mayor Dan Rizzo of Revere, a casino supporter, had hoped the commission would simply accept last month’s vote as a valid endorsement of Mohegan Sun’s new plans, as a majority of the panel had signaled last week they were willing to do. On Tuesday he complained that his city now “becomes ground zero for every anticasino group on earth.”
Allowing the Mohegan Sun project to stay in the running, at least until the new referendum, maintains a sense of competition for the state’s most lucrative casino license.
Last month, Milford voters killed a Foxwoods casino plan in their town, leaving Wynn Resorts as the only other casino applicant standing in the Greater Boston region.
Wynn is planning a gambling resort in Everett, where 86 percent of voters endorsed the plan at a referendum in June. Wynn officials declined to comment Tuesday on the commission’s decision.
Mike McLaughlin, an Everett city councilor and a strong backer of the Wynn project, suggested that the move was unfair to the casino project in his city, which won its vote and is complying with the deadlines. “I don’t think any member of the gaming commission has given fair respect to the city of Everett and Wynn Resorts,” McLaughlin said in a statement.
Suffolk Downs’s original proposal called for two hotels, a casino, spa, and other amenities, run in concert with the thoroughbred racetrack.
Under the new proposal, planned entirely on the Revere side of the property, Suffolk Downs would be a landlord, not the casino owner. Plans call for Mohegan Sun to build and own the casino on land leased from Suffolk Downs, independent of the track. The new arrangement would no longer require Suffolk Downs to continue horse racing, through track officials have pledged to keep racing.
About 61 percent of Revere voters supported the original Suffolk Downs casino plan. While Rizzo said he worries about election fatigue among the voters, he added, “They will, I’m confident, come out once again to show our support and allow Mohegan Sun to go forward.”
Revere is also likely to receive much more money than under the original proposal, which guaranteed $9 million a year. Rizzo is negotiating a new host agreement with Mohegan Sun, which he hopes to have done within 7 to 10 days.
Myers, from the No Eastie Casino group, did not rule out legal action to block the proposal and pledged to continue the campaign on the ground.
“Bottom line, where No Eastie Casino stands, we have a lot of friends in Revere,” she said. “We’re going to take the same path we did in East Boston: provide as much information as possible in Revere, provide the support that they need, and be there for them.”
The anticasino group has called for Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh of Boston to publicly oppose the casino plan, based on the vote of his East Boston constituents. Walsh did not take a position Tuesday, saying through a spokeswoman that there is still some question about whether Boston is a host community for the project, with the power to block the proposal, or a surrounding community, which can negotiate for compensation, but has no vote and little leverage.
“The deadline for the new proposal is Dec. 31, and until that proposal is put forth and we are able to examine the plans, there still remain questions about whether or not Boston should be considered a host community or a surrounding community,” said a statement from Walsh spokeswoman Kate Norton.
But Suffolk Downs and Mohegan officials have been emphatic in their view that Boston would be a surrounding community for the new proposal.
Revere resident Steven James, interviewed Tuesday, wondered why Revere had to endure yet another referendum campaign. “We already voted on it; what’s going to change?” he said. “We want the casino. I don’t understand why we need another vote.”
Rick Silva of Revere opposes casinos and will vote no. “I’ve seen what gambling really does to people,” he said. “It’s like a drug. It takes over people’s lives, and they spend money they don’t have.”
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