EVERETT — There’s a modest minimum wager on the blackjack table and a rookie Encore dealer getting tips from the pit boss. Cocktail waitresses are at our service, at the ripe hour of roughly 10:45 a.m. The guy in the next chair lays down two brand-new $100 bills, curved into the fat U-shape of his wallet.
After writing about the prospect of a Boston-area casino for nearly eight years, I’m staying on 12 while the dealer shows a 5. This is what it’s like to play on opening day at Encore Boston Harbor.
And even as I’m losing the hand all I can think about is the surreal sense of spatial displacement.
Where is this place that feels nothing like Greater Boston, and more like the sovereign territory of the Las Vegas Strip?
The mayor noticed it, too.
“I don’t feel like we’re in Everett right now,” Mayor Carlo DeMaria said when I ran into him later, among huge crowds in an elaborate hallway between two upscale restaurants and a $28 million metal sculpture of Popeye.
The casino industry’s relentless conquest of America was slow to arrive in Massachusetts. We talked about it for decades, pontificated, and white-papered the issue to bits, right down to counting Massachusetts license plates in the parking garage at Foxwoods.
In 2011, legislators and then-Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, agreed on the Expanded Gaming Act, launching the casino era and tacitly embracing the industry’s nomenclature for the activity historically known as gambling.
In building the Encore, a huge project done in lavish, budget-be-damned style, Wynn Resorts has answered the real-estate question nobody ever asked: What do you get for $2.6 billion in Everett?
Watching the cards being dealt, I’m remembering the first time I was here, on this peninsula jutting into the Mystic River, in late 2012. I had walked from the Gateway Center Costco, under a railroad bridge tagged with neon graffiti, and onto a weedy, windswept plain of crushed stone that was once the site of a Monsanto chemical plant. First impression was that it looked like a good place for the mob to bury a body. If that’s not a low enough bar, it wasn’t even true — the soil, in fact, was too contaminated for digging.
On that frosty day in 2012, Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn and his entourage were across the property in four black SUVs, touring the site where Wynn Resorts would plant its flag and make a pitch for a Massachusetts casino license.
The obvious question then: Who would ever pay to come here?
Steve Wynn was at his apex at the time, boastful and full of swagger. “In my business the development makes the destination,” he said that day.
I have heard that while at the site he remarked to one of his lieutenants: Do you know how much bleeping money it will cost to make this place look pretty?
The site may have been less important than the city. Wynn Resorts had tried first in Foxborough and learned that comfortable suburbanites won’t be talked into a gambling palace. Ah, but Everett. Stuck in Boston’s shadow, with grave needs for tax money and good white- and blue-collar jobs. An overlooked city back then, with enough of a chip on its shoulder that it might enjoy snatching a casino away from big brother across the river.
In a binding referendum, 86 percent of Everett voters supported the casino. Eighty-six percent. Casino fans could crow that the project was as popular as free beer on Fridays.
DeMaria crowed a bit in his opening remarks Sunday: “We will no longer be the back door to the city of Boston. We will now be the front door to the city of Everett.”
Look who’s swaggering now.
The Gaming Act wasn’t written for any Las Vegas gambling giant; it was written with Suffolk Downs in mind. Few thought the East Boston and Revere racetrack would face serious competition for the one resort casino license for Greater Boston.
The Gaming Commission vote to decide which proposal would get a gambling market worth billions — and which would get nothing — was nearly five years ago, in September 2014. It was an existential vote for Suffolk Downs, where Seabiscuit ran and the Beatles jammed, and now maybe condos will sprout.
You could say Steve Wynn is the guy who made the Everett casino happen, and then, later, almost not happen.
Sexual misconduct accusations against Wynn, revealed by The Wall Street Journal, threatened to tank the project just as it appeared on a glide path to an on-time opening.
Wynn resigned, but uncertainty hung over the construction for more than a year, before the Gaming Commission permitted the company to keep its license — with a $35 million fine and some harsh words for Wynn Resorts CEO Matt Maddox.
Then last month, the Globe revealed that Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts were talking about a sale of Encore. Talks fell apart under the glare of publicity, and finally, Greater Boston’s long pursuit of a casino ran out of surprises.
Maddox mingled with the throngs on opening day, strolling the resort with his family, accepting handshakes and congratulations from well-wishers, like the host of very large and successful holiday party. He seemed happy to put the past aside.
“It’s a new day,” he said, brightly.
He was talking about the project, but he could have been speaking, for better or worse, about Greater Boston — now and for the future, a casino town.
Mark Arsenault can be reached at email@example.com.