Metro

Plan for second Mass. slots parlor faces steep odds

Plainridge Park Casino's gaming floor.

Jonathan Wiggs/GlobeStaff/File

Plainridge Park Casino's gaming floor.

An international developer prevailed in his unlikely quest to get a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to demand a second slots parlor in Massachusetts.

But that may have been the easy part.

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To win a license, the developer not only has to get voters to approve Question 1. He also has to persuade the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to rethink its carefully crafted limits on casino licenses, and he has to wring an agreement out of the city of Revere, whose mayor derides the plan as “a fly-by-night proposal.”

If it all sounds far-fetched, consider this: The developer also has hopes of reviving horse racing at Suffolk Downs — even though the racetrack’s operator does not support his proposal and gave up on the idea of a casino after losing the competition for a casino license three years ago.

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“We have not and do not plan to support it,” said Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle. “And as far as gaming on the Suffolk Downs property, we think that ship has sailed, and we are looking at other options.”

Such are the quandaries of Question 1 — one of the most mysterious ballot questions voters have confronted in years.

If passed, it could expand the state’s Gaming Act to allow the commission to issue an additional license for a slots parlor. But the language of the ballot question is both highly specific and vague on the destination of the slots parlor: It calls for a location at least 4 acres large, within 1,500 feet of a race track.

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Suffolk Downs, which had competed for a Boston-area casino but lost to a site in Everett, seemed the likely beneficiary. But Suffolk Downs denied any involvement, and as the Globe previously reported, the person pushing the petition was Eugene McCain, a businessman and developer whose Facebook account puts him in Phuket, Thailand. McCain had negotiated agreements to buy properties near Suffolk Downs, including a trailer park where he wants to build the slots parlor.

The 2011 law that legalized gambling in Massachusetts provided for only three casinos within defined geographical areas and one slots parlor. Some of the anticipated gambling revenue was intended to prop up the horse-racing industry.

Suffolk Downs, which spans East Boston and Revere, was a top contender for a casino in the Boston region. But its bid was rejected by East Boston voters in a 2013 referendum. Even after proponents moved the plan exclusively onto property in Revere, where the referendum passed, Suffolk Downs lost the casino competition to Wynn in Everett.

One slots parlor has opened in Massachusetts. But profits at Plainridge Park Casino have not lived up to expectations.

As a result, Revere Mayor Brian M. Arrigo was concerned to see McCain citing Plainridge’s expectations in his own plans. Those plans also lacked detail, included grammatical errors, and didn’t begin to address local concerns that a slots parlor would raise, such as the effect on traffic, Arrigo said.

“With the information that’s in front of me, it’s pretty clear that it’s setting the bar pretty low. I got elected talking about setting the bar really high for the city.”

Rather than embracing the slots parlor, as McCain had hoped, Arrigo now expects to work against it.

“My sense is that it’s just a fly-by-night proposal, and they’re just staying under the radar hoping the rest of the Commonwealth can decide what they want to see happen in the city of Revere,” he said.

It’s unclear whether or how the campaign will move forward without the mayor’s support. The developer would need to secure a host community agreement with Revere, whose residents would have their say in a separate referendum.

Documents that McCain provided the mayor show he was counting on the city’s support to move forward with the ballot campaign before assuming any more financial risk.

“For the city of Revere to have this opportunity, private funds have had to be spent already in acquiring property in Revere, to fund the legal expenses of submitting an initiative question to the state for certification, to fund the gathering of over 100,000 signatures from registered voters in Massachusetts, and to fund legal challenges to this ballot question,” the document said.

Winning the ballot campaign would cost millions more, the document said. “But none of this will be possible without the City of Revere’s confirmation of its support for this very costly effort.”

McCain has not returned phone calls for comment. His attorney, Jeffrey S. King, provided a statement and pointed to a poll of Revere residents that he said showed local support for the project.

“Many other elected officials in Revere are listening to their constituents and expressing support,” McCain said in the statement. “I am hopeful the mayor will soon do the same; as we are all struggling to understand why he is taking such a strong stance against the wishes of his community.”

McCain has not named his casino partner — though he described it in his proposal as “a world class gaming giant.” He lists Novotel as his hotel partner, but a spokeswoman for the hotel chain has not confirmed a partnership.

While McCain has appeared in Revere negotiations with apparent partners, he is the lone champion of the ballot initiative. The campaign committee formed to push for Question 1, the Horse Racing Jobs and Education Committee, lists McCain as both its chairman and treasurer, in paperwork filed with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance. That committee has already raised and spent $284,000 mostly for paid signature-gatherers for the petition effort to get the question on the ballot. Funding has come exclusively from Capital Productions LLP, a Delaware corporation for which McCain is the only registered agent.

Meanwhile, opposition is expected to come from the other casinos that won licenses and from residential opponents. Former leaders of the No Eastie Casino group formed the Committee for Responsible and Sustainable Economic Development campaign committee to oppose Question 1.

“We voted on this thing, we voted it down, and they found a way to create another vote so we have to go back and vote again,” state Representative Adrian Madaro said. He said he wants Suffolk Downs to start developing a master plan for reuse of its site.

“This is so much worse than a casino because this is a slots parlor,” Madaro said. “I represent a moderate- to low-income community, and slots parlors prey on those communities.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com.
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