After a two-year battle that left MGM Resorts International as the last competitor standing to build a resort casino in western Massachusetts, the entertainment giant now wants to delay the ultimate prize—a Massachusetts casino license. A leading anti-casino advocate says it’s a sign MGM is nervous about the prospect Massachusetts voters could repeal casino gambling in a statewide referendum.
MGM Springfield President Mike Mathis asked Massachusetts gaming industry regulators on Thursday to continue as scheduled with an exhaustive evaluation of his company’s casino license application but to stop short of making a formal license award until the fate of the casino repeal referendum is settled.
" I think the award of the license was intended to be the kick-off to the project. But what we find ourselves in with the repeal referendum is the awarding of a license that does not allow for the commencement of construction."
Mathis said once a casino license is formally awarded by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission it triggers a required $85 million payment to the state and obligates MGM to pay closing costs and certain other expenses for the $800 million casino project it proposes in downtown Springfield.
" You get close to a $200 million check that is triggered by the award of a license that is truly not the awarding of a license potentially."
In a letter to the commission, Mathis suggested MGM be designated the presumed casino license holder in western Massachusetts until the State Supreme Judicial Court rules on whether the repeal referendum can appear on the November ballot. The court is scheduled to hear arguments May 5th. If it allows the statewide vote, the fate of the Springfield casino project would hang in the balance for six months.
The five-member commission took no action on MGM’s request. Commissioner Enrique Zuniga said it would be “devastating” for Springfield if buildings were demolished to make way for a casino and no casino is built.
" Forget about one tornado or one gas explosion, it would probably look like five tornadoes."
MGM is proposing to build the casino in a three-block area of the city’s downtown that was damaged by the tornado in 2011.
John Ribeiro, who is chairman of the anti-casino organization Repeal the Casino Deal, said MGM’s request to delay the awarding of the license is recognition of weakening public support for casino gambling in Massachusetts.
"People around the Commonwealth are beginning to realize it is a bad deal for all of Massachusetts. Many people who are most impacted won't have a say. MGM and other casino developers can see the writing on the wall that if we have a chance to vote we are going to defeat it."
Ribeiro said he is confident the state’s highest court will allow the referendum his group is sponsoring to appear on the ballot.
" I certainly am. There is no reason for us to be kept off the ballot."
Casino opponents collected enough signatures last fall to advance the initiative petition, but Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office said the proposed referendum violated the state’s constitution because it would be an uncompensated taking of private property.
Supporters and opponents of the anti-casino referendum filed legal documents with the court this week. Among those submitting arguments opposing the referendum were Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, other city residents, and organizations.
The Springfield Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Ciuffreda said local businesses have started to gear up already to supply MGM with $50 million annually in goods and services.
" And, that is why we took the step to file the amicus brief to let the courts know that we really think this has a big multiplier negative affect on economy of Springfield and the greater Springfield area."
The Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University is among the groups and individuals that filed legal papers supporting the anti-casino referendum. It argued that allowing casinos in Massachusetts would have “grave implications” to public health.