As plans for a world-class casino on the Mystic River have inched forward over the past three years, opponents have gradually fallen by the wayside. Except for one.
Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone has not wavered in his fight against a Wynn Resorts casino in Everett, just a few hundred feet across the Mystic River.
So earlier this month, Steve Tocco, a longtime political operative hired to advise the Wynn team, sat down for a one-on-one lunch with Curtatone, perhaps the final obstacle to the $1.7 billion casino.
Over chowder and sushi at Legal on The Mystic in Somerville, Tocco pleaded with Curtatone not to appeal an environmental permit awarded to the project, a move that could set construction back by a year at a cost of hundreds of millions.
“What would it take for a compromise?” Tocco asked, recounting his conversation in an interview this week.
Curtatone said he would “lose all of my leverage” in negotiations if he didn’t file the appeal, Tocco said. But Tocco saw it differently.
“You lose all of your leverage if you do file,” he replied. “The window is now.”
The conversation was cordial, both men agreed in interviews this week. Yet Tocco was blunt in portraying the casino as a done deal.
“We’re building, Joe,” Tocco said. “There’s a casino that’s going to go up, with or without your support.”
Nine days later, Curtatone called Tocco to say there would be no compromise; he was filing an appeal.
Furious, the company set diplomacy aside, unleashing an unusually personal attack last week that blasted Curtatone as a “selfish politician” who was exploiting the issue for his own benefit. Curtatone has responded to Wynn’s broadside by saying: “They are going to get personal. They are going to get political. We suspect they are going to get vicious.”
Details of the recent lunch, recounted by both men in separate interviews, offer a rare glimpse into the tense behind-the-scenes negotiations over one the largest developments in the area in recent years, and bring sharply held positions into stark relief.
Somerville’s resistance has come center stage since late January, when Boston officials agreed to drop all litigation against the casino in exchange for an additional $400,000 in annual payments, bringing the total to $2 million year.
Suddenly, the massive casino and hotel complex, with its 4,000 new jobs and hundreds of millions in new taxes, seemed close to reality. Construction crews were primed to begin pouring the foundation in April.
‘They are going to get personal. They are going to get political. We suspect they are going to get vicious.’Joseph A. Curtatone, mayor of Somerville, referring to Wynn resorts
But while Wynn Resorts celebrated the breakthrough, Curtatone was studying a somewhat arcane permit that’s required for waterfront developments.
The state Department of Environmental Protection approved the permit in January, but Curtatone had previously filed written objections on the city’s behalf, preserving its right to appeal. In fact, because no one else filed objections, Somerville was the only municipality that could.
That gave Curtatone leverage and led to the negotiations with Tocco on Feb. 3. At the hourlong lunch, Curtatone revisited the city’s previous demand — one that had been rejected in arbitration — for $1.5 million in annual payments for 15 years, as well as improvements to nine Somerville intersections near the casino site.
Tocco said he flatly rejected the idea. Wynn’s final offer — an upfront payment of $150,000 and $650,000 in annual payments — had been accepted at arbitration.
“We’re not going to reopen the agreement — it’s just not going to happen,” Tocco told Curtatone. “If we reopen yours, other communities will want to do the same.”
“There are other ways to build bridges” of cooperation, Tocco said, mentioning Wynn’s offer to help businesses at Assembly Row, the massive development in Somerville just off Interstate 93.
Tocco also made a clear distinction between the Boston and Somerville negotiations over mitigation payments. Boston refused to participate, so the state Gaming Commission decided the terms and made it a condition of Wynn’s license. When Wynn agreed last month to sweeten that package, it was the first time the two parties negotiated, not a reopening, Tocco argued.
Tocco said Curtatone never explicitly said he “wanted more money,” but mentioned the city’s previous proposal as a way to break the impasse.
Curtatone said, “If you want to solve this, look at what I didn’t get” in the initial negotiations, according to Tocco.
Curtatone also brought up something Tocco said he was not prepared for: Would Wynn help him bring a hotel to Assembly Row, a project that Curtatone has shepherded for a decade?
Tocco said he would check with Wynn and later called Curtatone to say Wynn would be happy to help, and could even assist in the financing.
Curtatone confirmed Tocco’s account, but said he is only trying to get the best deal possible for Somerville residents. Wynn Resorts should pay for whatever measures are necessary to offset the influx of cars spewing exhaust in Somerville neighborhoods, he said.
“I’m not saying money is not involved,” Curtatone said. “It will cost money to address the impacts on health and environment.”
On a personal note, Curtatone said he suffers from asthma that he believes is related to growing up a short distance from McGrath Highway.
“I’m trying to protect the health of the people of my city,” he said. “It’s not about gambling. That’s over. That’s moot. And I came out of the losing side. This is about the environment and health.”
As Somerville continued its fight, Charlestown resident Ivey St. John lauded Curtatone’s stand, even in likely defeat.
“I hope he has impact in stopping the casino, but I don’t think he will because the state politically wants the casino,” she said. “And they’re going to get it.”Sean P. Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.