Massachusetts Casinos Held at Bay in 2016, But Future Looks Buoyant

Posted on: January 2, 2017, 02:00h. 

Last updated on: December 20, 2016, 09:53h.

It was a turbulent year for Massachusetts casinos.

Legalized in 2011 through the state’s Expanded Gaming Act, five years later only one gambling venue is open for business. Massachusetts’ casino expansion law called for the authorization of three resort casinos in three distinct regions, plus a single slots-only parlor.

Massachusetts casinos 2016 Wynn Boston Harbor
He’s all smiles now, but 2016 was a tempestuous year for Massachusetts casinos and Steve Wynn’s Boston Harbor project. (Image: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe)

The Plainridge Park Casino is the slots classification. Adjacent to the Plainridge Park Racecourse, the slots facility opened in June of 2015.

The two resort casinos approved by the state, MGM Springfield and Wynn Boston Harbor, remain under construction and won’t open until 2018 at the earliest. The third and final casino license remains in limbo.

Harboring Tensions

While MGM Springfield’s $950 million resort is progressing smoothly and has a scheduled opening for sometime in 2018, Steve Wynn’s Boston Harbor has encountered one hurdle after another.

The Las Vegas billionaire was in a tedious legal dispute with Somerville Major Joseph Curtatone (D) that resulted in the casino’s opening being delayed by a year. Curtatone challenged the state’s issuance of an environmental permit to Wynn Boston Harbor and appealed to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Curtatone argued that the resort’s traffic and resulting pollution would negatively affect his residents. Wynn argued Curtatone was simply after more money, as the resort reached agreements with Boston to pay the city $2 million per year for the next 15 years, but only $650,000 annually to Somerville.

In the end, the DEP stayed its decision. “After three years and one of the most thorough licensing and environmental review processes in the history of Massachusetts, Wynn Boston Harbor has its license in hand,” said Wynn President Robert DeSalvio.

Sovereign Battles

The third and final region license still to be issued consists of the southeastern part of the state. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is holding off on accepting a bid due to the ongoing legal fight being contested by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

One of two federally recognized tribes in the Bay State, the Mashpee Wampanoag people are trying to build a $1 billion casino in Taunton. In October, a district judge ruled against those plans, saying he believed the US Department of the Interior (DOI) erred in designating the land as sovereign property in 2015.

Mashpee Wampanoag is appealing to federal authorities to override the district judge’s verdict. If the tribe wins, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission would be expected to eliminate the third region license due to oversaturation.

Plainridge Harnesses Racing

The lone bright spot in the Massachusetts casino industry was the Plainridge slots parlor. Thanks to the casino addition, attendance at the harness horse racetrack is up, and that’s led to an increase in wagers.

In addition to reaping the benefits of added foot traffic, the track also receives nine percent of the gross gaming win collected by the casino. Since the first lever was pulled back in June of 2015, the track has received more than $9 million in payments from Penn National Gaming, the owner and operator of the casino.   

“We’re really happy,” Plainridge Park Racecourse General Manager Steve O’Toole told The Boston Globe. “It’s enabled us to attract higher quality horses to race for bigger purses, and that has added a lot of excitement.”