State panel selects Wynn casino over plan for Revere
Developer Steve Wynn, whose glitzy hotels line the famous Las Vegas strip, snatched the biggest prize in the Massachusetts casino sweepstakes Tuesday, defeating a locally backed project by Mohegan Sun at Suffolk Downs to claim the lucrative Greater Boston casino license.
After five days of nail-biting deliberations, the state gambling commission voted 3 to 1 in favor of Wynn’s vision to turn a forlorn plot of polluted land on the Mystic River, just north of Boston in Everett, into a gleaming $1.6 billion gambling resort.
Suffolk Downs management signaled immediately after the vote that the Depression-era racetrack on the Revere-East Boston city line would close, an outcome that would have seemed inconceivable when the state casino law was passed in 2011. At the time, many considered the track’s politically connected ownership a bigger favorite to win than Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont.
But Wynn’s proposal was just bigger and richer, capturing the license on economic factors. Wynn offered a stronger development financing plan, a much larger construction investment, and a bigger projected workforce and payroll.
To prevail, Wynn’s representatives also had to make a last-minute presentation on Tuesday, backed up with money, to overcome concerns about its commitment to address casino traffic through Sullivan Square in Charlestown, a notorious bottleneck.
The commission went forward with its decision despite some recent calls for delay until after voters decide in November whether to repeal the casino law.
Steve Wynn, who did not attend the commission’s deliberations, thanked the panel in a statement for the “thoughtful and exhaustive energy that they have put into the process.”
Mayor Carlo DeMaria of Everett said the vote would transform a “desolate’’ section of his city.
“This is going to be a snowball, getting bigger and bigger,” DeMaria said. “You won’t recognize the city of Everett, hopefully, in 10 years. We will no longer be the butt end of the city of Boston.”
The commission has already awarded the state’s sole slot parlor license to a Penn National Gaming project in Plainville, which is under construction despite the threat the state casino law may be repealed. The commission has promised the Western Massachusetts resort casino license to MGM, which plans to build in downtown Springfield. A resort license for Southeastern Massachusetts may be awarded next year.
But the crown jewel of the state’s casino law has always been the Greater Boston license, which is projected to be worth about $700 million to more than $800 million a year in gambling revenue.
On what may be its most important decision, the panel deliberated in public for five days over two weeks, after months of private evaluations to compare the projects across five categories.
Wynn scored best in the commission’s review of finances, contribution to economic development, and in a catch-all “project overview” category. Mohegan Sun won the building and site design category, as well as mitigation, which covers traffic planning.
The commission spent three days of its deliberations painstakingly hammering out proposed conditions on each developer, should they win, to address weaknesses in the applications. Mohegan Sun, in response to a condition, agreed to bring more equity into its financing structure and to revamp marketing plans.
Wynn’s proposal looked as if it might get hung up on Sullivan Square and the commission’s insistence that the developer accept fines for casino traffic through the intersection that exceed set targets, as an incentive for the company to encourage patrons to use public transportation. The developer at first rejected the condition as an “impossible business risk.”
But the commission held firm in a tense hearing Monday.
Faced with possible elimination, Wynn executives offered a proposal Tuesday that may have saved the project. The company brought more money to the table for a long-term fix for the intersection and agreed to the commission’s demand for fines on excess traffic so long as the payments were capped at $20 million over 10 years.
It was not all that the commission had asked for, but it was enough to convince a majority of the board that the company was serious about encouraging public transportation and contributing to the long-term fix.
Final deliberations Tuesday afternoon were swift.
Commissioners Gayle Cameron, Enrique Zuniga, and Bruce Stebbins each said they were leaning to Wynn, citing Wynn’s advantage on economic issues.
“I think good-paying jobs [are] absolutely part of this process,” said Cameron.
Stebbins also noted that the reuse of the vacant Everett site would be a tremendous benefit to the region. Zuniga said Wynn’s stronger financials better fortify the proposal to withstand changes in the market or an economic downturn.
McHugh disagreed, saying the Wynn proposal may have a tougher time getting the necessary state and local permits to proceed.
“The likelihood of [the Wynn proposal’s] ability to succeed on schedule . . . is less than the Mohegan Sun proposal,” McHugh said. “In the end, the ability of Mohegan Sun’s proposal to get off the ground is greater.”
“Ultimately, I have a great concern about whether this project can muster the kind of collaborative energy it needs to move forward,” he said of the Wynn project.
McHugh, a lawyer, former judge, and skilled debater, briefly tried to pull a vote to his side, but nobody would budge and Wynn’s victory was secure.
Stephen Crosby, commission chairman, did not participate due to potential conflicts of interest.
Casino supporters in Everett hailed the vote as a new beginning for the city.
“I’m grateful and thrilled and exhausted,” said Linda Maloney, 60, a secretary and lifelong city resident who watched the vote unfold on television. “Now a new journey begins for us, because the casino is coming to Everett.”
Renee Scott, 41, shopping on Broadway with two of her four children, sees a possible paycheck one day from Wynn.
“Opportunities, jobs — I’ll definitely apply for a job when it comes,” Scott said.
Wynn Resorts was unable to reach a compensation agreement with Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston before the decision, and Walsh has criticized the company for how it handled negotiations. Steve Wynn suggested Tuesday’s vote could reboot the relationship between the administration and the developer.
“We expect that now that a decision has been made, everybody will find it much easier to relate to one another, get on with the job of creating jobs and building a better life for the citizens of Everett and the surrounding communities in the Greater Boston area,” Wynn said.
With the commission backing Wynn, Walsh loses a lucrative compensation deal he had signed with Mohegan Sun for $18 million a year.
The mayor, who had gone on the offensive last week, accusing McHugh and the commission of being biased against the city’s effort to win more influence over the developments, had little to say about the vote on Tuesday.
“We are evaluating the gambling commission’s decision and all of the conditions imposed on the issuance of this license,” Walsh said. “Serious questions remain around Sullivan Square and Rutherford Avenue and other impacts in Charlestown, as well as other neighborhoods in the city of Boston.”
Mitchell Etess, chief executive of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, said after the vote that “disappointed doesn’t even begin” to describe his feelings. Etess later issued a statement saying that Mohegan Sun had “worked incredibly hard” on the proposal and believed it was “the best choice for the Commonwealth’s flagship casino.”
Mohegan Sun lost a casino referendum vote last year in Palmer, ending its pursuit of the Western Massachusetts casino license.
Suffolk Downs also lost a referendum last year, when East Boston voters rejected the track’s casino plans on the East Boston side of the city line. That surprise defeat led track officials to join with Mohegan Sun for a new proposal entirely in Revere.
Wynn, in 2012, proposed to compete for the Boston-area license with a Foxborough proposal, but withdrew due to local opposition. He found a much friendlier political reception in struggling Everett, where 86 percent of voters supported the Wynn plan in a referendum.
The project avoided potential disaster late last year, after state investigators discovered that the owners of the Everett land might have undisclosed partners with criminal records. Wynn revised his option to buy the property, slashing the purchase price to a market rate so no undisclosed partners could benefit from the premium price a wealthy casino company was willing to pay.
On Wednesday, the commission will take a second vote to promise the license to Wynn, provided the developer accepts a final list of conditions on the license.