There, beyond Costco and the Texas Roadhouse restaurant, it looms: the golden tower, rechristened “Encore Boston Harbor,” to erase the name of Steve Wynn from the $2.5 billion hotel casino project the now disgraced mogul personally championed for Everett.
A recent trip to a discount wine store located in the strip mall that currently abuts the casino development put me close to metro Boston’s coming gambling attraction. As I stocked up on chardonnay, I thought about the still-winding path to casinos in Massachusetts.
The state’s expanded gaming law was enacted in 2011 — seven long years ago, when Deval Patrick was governor and Massachusetts was coming out of an economic recession. It authorized three resort casinos and a slots parlor, which is open for business at Plainridge Park. But, given today’s 3.5 percent unemployment rate, did Massachusetts really need those casinos? In Springfield, where the jobless rate is higher, a casino is set to open later this month. Everett, too, is looking forward to benefits projected from 8 million casino visitors a year — “more than Sox, Patriots, Bruins, and Celtics combined annual attendance,” according to a spokesman for Encore Boston Harbor. But localized enthusiasm for casinos says more about the challenge of spreading the boom beyond Boston than it does about the intrinsic allure of gambling.
The Everett project is moving forward with a 2019 opening date, even as the Massachusetts Gaming Commission continues to mull whether Wynn Resorts is “suitable” to retain its license after allegations of sexual misconduct were raised against its founder. To off-load that baggage from a once iconic brand, Wynn sold his shares, eliminating his ownership in the company.
The company also shook up its board, adding three women to it, and offered up another high-level corporate woman as a sacrificial lamb. Last month, Wynn Resorts announced it was cutting ties with Kim Sinatra, the longtime general counsel and corporate secretary, who played a key role in helping the company win the Everett license. The announcement follows news reports that Elaine Wynn, the former wife of Steve Wynn, alleged in a lawsuit that she asked Sinatra in 2009 whether she knew anything about the settlement Wynn made with a manicurist who accused him of forcing her to have sex. According to Elaine Wynn, Sinatra said the issue had been “handled personally” by Steve Wynn and wasn’t a company concern. Sinatra has said Elaine Wynn never disclosed any details about the accusations and only made a vague reference to a settlement. But Sinatra is gone. Meanwhile, Elaine Wynn, who was a board member from 2002 to 2015, is now the company’s largest shareholder and supposed corporate reformer — even though, according to her testimony, she knew as of 2005 about the $7.5 million settlement paid by her husband.
The Gaming Commission missed all of this during its first suitability investigation. Investigators are now looking into who in Wynn’s corporate world knew what and when. Findings are expected to be released by the end of the summer, according to commission spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll. I bet the Everett project gets another licensing green light. Alternatives are too complicated for the beleaguered and politically sensitive Gaming Commission to contemplate.
Wynn ended up in Everett after the town of Foxborough rejected his overture to build there. The late Boston mayor Tom Menino, committed to a Suffolk Downs casino development team, also spurned a Boston option for Wynn. As a result, millions of gamblers will be headed to Everett, some by “European-style” water taxis.
Whatever happens next, the casino concept has never quite fit the image of Massachusetts as a cradle of innovation and intellect. In today’s economic good times, it feels even more retro and unnecessary. Given all our attributes, from biotech to higher education and health care, couldn’t Massachusetts figure out a better way, beyond the casino industry, to grow the economic pie in places like Everett and Springfield? Apparently not — in a state whose capital considers itself the Athens of America.