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Gaming commission takes baby step on Southeastern Mass. casino

An "English Roulette" table.
An "English Roulette" table.AFP via Getty Images

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission on Thursday took a small but significant step that could eventually lead to a fourth casino being constructed in the state.

The regulatory body directed its staff to draw up documents soliciting information from experts and the public on questions including whether the market could support a full-service gambling facility in Southeastern Massachusetts, and whether such a decision would benefit the state.

The process is playing out as the state already has one suitor urging the commission to make a speedy decision. Mass Gaming and Entertainment, whose proposal to build a $677 million casino at the Brockton Fairgrounds was rejected in 2016, wants another crack at the license. But it also says it will not wait around forever.

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“We ask that whatever else you do . . . you recognize that the ongoing delay comes at a tremendous human and financial cost,” the company’s attorneys wrote in a letter to the commission. “We ask that you move the process forward quickly.”

The commission’s pace, however, has been decidedly deliberate. The state law that legalized casino gambling in 2011 authorized three full-service casinos — one in Western Massachusetts, one in the east, and one in the southeast — plus one slots parlor.

The Southeastern Massachusetts casino is the only one that is not up and running — and with the existing casinos in Everett, Springfield, and Plainville seeing disappointing revenues, regulators are now facing an increasingly complex and uncertain gambling landscape.

Gaming Commission member Enrique Zuniga said Thursday that the calculus on whether to award a casino license is more complicated now that there are other casinos that provide revenue and other economic benefits to the state.

“It’s much easier to make the first licensing decision than it is to make the fourth one,” he said. “We should be very aware of the performance of the current existing licensees — the responses of the states around us.”

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Two tribal gambling sites proposed in Southeastern Massachusetts — one in Taunton and another on Martha’s Vineyard — have further complicated the picture there, with regulators especially concerned about the potential impact of the Taunton site being targeted by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

The state’s power over tribal casinos is much more limited than its sway over commercial sites like the ones that exist in Massachusetts now.

When the commission denied the Brockton casino’s application in 2016, the prospect of the Mashpee casino was part of the rationale.

The tribe’s effort has become bogged down, however, by legal challenges. And though the Mashpee are continuing their efforts, Mass Gaming and Entertainment asked the Gaming Commission last year to reconsider its pitch.

The company argues that the prospects for the Mashpee’s facility have dimmed — even as Rhode Island has sought to draw more gamblers out of Massachusetts with its casinos in Lincoln and Tiverton.

The commission declined, but it has left open the possibility of opening the region to bids again after it evaluates whether there would be a sufficient clientele to justify the construction of another state-regulated casino.

The commission could finalize the requests for public comment and expert information at its next meeting.

Once that process is complete, the commission could potentially order up a full market study that would provide more detailed information about the economic effects of a casino in Southeastern Massachusetts.

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Zuniga noted during the meeting that the fact that Mass Gaming and Entertainment, a venture backed by Chicago real estate magnate Neil Bluhm, has hung around may say something about the viability of the area — which is described in regulatory jargon as “Region C.”

“There’s somebody with the experience of operating in other competitive areas that thinks they can make money here,” he said. “That’s about as good an indication as we’re going to have.”

But the slow pace has left supporters, including Brockton’s mayor, frustrated.

“Under the process you have developed, it is hard to imagine that I will see my city or any other city or town in Region C enjoy the benefits — jobs and revenue — that the 2011 gaming statute promised every region in the Commonwealth,” Mayor Moises Rodrigues wrote in a letter to the commission.

At the meeting, commission members noted that Rodrigues is leaving office next month, and that Mayor-elect Robert F. Sullivan has not expressed a position on the casino issue.


Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com.