REVERE — He left the University of California Berkeley to study meditation in Hawaii. He sold high-end properties on the Big Island until Thailand beckoned, then he moved there to develop luxury resorts.
Now at age 64, when many men of means might be eyeing exotic retirement destinations, Eugene Augustus McCain Jr. is going in the opposite direction: relocating from Phuket, Thailand, to Point of Pines, Revere, as he attempts to redevelop a dilapidated trailer park near Suffolk Downs race track into a slots casino.
Meet the man behind Question 1, the ballot referendum that will decide whether Massachusetts voters want to open the door to another slots casino. His plan will face its first test Tuesday, when Revere holds a nonbinding referendum that, if it passes, could put him in a strong position for the statewide vote on Nov. 8.
Since he arrived in Revere last year and quietly began assembling properties, McCain has been a little-seen and enigmatic figure. Even now, he avoids being the face of the campaign, relying on out-of-state representatives to make his case for him at debates. However, he did testify before the Revere City Council and sit down for an interview with The Boston Globe.
A tall, imposing man with a mild demeanor who loves Buddhist culture and espouses meditation, McCain, somewhat paradoxically, exudes an air of old New England privilege. He points to his education at the Eaglebrook School, a private boarding school in Deerfield. In explaining his family’s deep ties to the region, he told the Revere City Council last spring that his ancestors had settled in Plymouth in the 1600s.
Yet he filed personal bankruptcy years ago, he refuses to name his fellow investors, and his plans have been criticized as amateurish and sloppy.
“This proposal is so bad it even has the wrong address in the local referendum,” Mayor Brian M. Arrigo said, “apparently because the proponents attempted to locate the site using Google Maps.”
McCain also faces a fight from Wynn Resorts, which won the lone Boston-area casino license awarded by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and is building a $2.1 billion casino just a few miles away. And even if voters approve the ballot question, there’s no guarantee the project would be built. The question authorizes the commission to issue another license but doesn’t require it to do so.
McCain argues Revere residents want a slots casino, having twice supported other proposals at the Suffolk Downs race track. But the city’s elected officials don’t want a slots parlor, having given up after their foiled attempts to win a full-scale casino. Arrigo is campaigning against it.
McCain said he expects his team to spend $5 million to $10 million on the campaign. He has agreements to buy properties around Suffolk Downs, including Lee’s Trailer Park, and says he is close to announcing a partner for a hotel next to the slots casino. Also, he has teamed up with Navegante, a small consulting firm that helps develop and manage casinos.
Asked why he’d leave one of the loveliest places in the world for a project whose odds are so speculative, McCain pointed to his Thai-born children. He has long wanted his 13-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter to come to school in the United States, he said. He recently divorced their mother, who remains in Thailand, he said, so this “seemed like an appropriate time to make a change.”
He also said “the risk of gaming was offset by a stellar market for hotel development in Boston.”
McCain has never been involved with a gambling venture, he said. His focus has long been on real estate. Raised in Westchester County, N.Y., he moved to Hawaii, where he and his brother bought a health food store and theater in the early 1970s, according to the website of his sister, who’s now a local elected official in Hawaii.
“I was sort of enamored with it,” McCain said. “The fact that I could be there and actually have a business there was kind of equally exciting.”
In his 20s, he began developing properties. His company, Royal Coast Company Ltd., conducted about $1 billion in commercial real estate transactions over 10 years, he said.
But in 1999, he filed for personal bankruptcy, discharging more than $2 million in debt owed to creditors, mostly to his mother, records show. McCain blamed a crash of Hawaii’s real estate market.
“My only mistake is I should have done it three or four years earlier,” said McCain. “My pride was too much. I didn’t want to file it.”
He was invited to Thailand by Aman Resorts founder Adrian Zecha, he said, and he spent a decade there — creating Cape Yamu, a luxury residential and hotel development in Phuket, and Jindarin Beach Villas, a boutique luxury resort community that opened last year.
McCain’s approach to the Revere project has conspicuously followed a playbook made familiar in the gaming world by Las Vegas casino mogul Shawn Scott — buying properties at a race track and then financing a voter referendum to authorize gambling there.
In 2003, Scott bought a track in Bangor for $1.1 million, then drove a $1.5 million ballot initiative campaign to get a casino there. He failed to win the casino license after a Maine Harness Racing Commission report listed concerns about Scott’s history of lawsuits, the financial management of his past companies, and the criminal background of his partner, Hoolae Paoa.
However, he sold the Maine track for $51 million to a national gambling company that opened a casino there. (He also had bought a struggling race track in Louisiana for $10 million and sold it for $130 million.)
Scott also failed to win licenses in Idaho, Washington, D.C., and New York.
McCain said neither Scott nor Paoa is involved in his project in Revere. But he acknowledged that he worked with Scott in Hawaii, acting as a real estate broker for his investment team there.
He also confirmed that Scott and Paoa joined him when he was examining properties for the project in Revere.
“They came just to see what I was doing, to see if this was something they would be interested in,” McCain said. Alluding to other states’ denials of licenses to Scott, he added: “He is not involved and cannot and will not be involved.”
McCain did hire someone to promote Question 1 in Massachusetts who previously worked for Scott promoting the ballot question in Maine. David Nealley, a city councilor in Bangor, is being paid to promote the Revere project by touting the benefits of the casino in his city.
McCain declined to name the investors who have provided seed money for the project, saying they should not face scrutiny at this stage. The project will provide full disclosure if the project moves forward after November, he said.
“Right now, I’m the guy doing this,” he said. “This is Gene McCain’s project.”