More than any other factor, votes in cities and towns in 2013 shaped the casino competition landscape for the burgeoning gaming industry in Massachusetts
In writing the Massachusetts gaming law in 2011 legislators and Governor Deval Patrick insisted that local control be paramount in determining where the state’s first casinos would be built. A successful outcome in a local referendum is a prerequisite for advancing in the state’s lengthy licensing process.
Massachusetts Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby points out that 11 initial applicants for gaming licenses last January were winnowed to five by the end of the year as a result of decisions by local voters.
"If a community doesn't want it,a community won't have it. Period. That is the issue."
Casino operators generally found voters receptive in urban areas desperate for economic development and jobs, but were chased out of suburban communities where voters saw the gambling meccas as more hassle than benefit.
MGM Resorts put $1 million into a campaign in Springfield to persuade voters to endorse plans for an $800 million downtown casino. The company employed a get-out-the-vote effort that knocked on 28,000 doors and made thousands of phone calls. It paid off with a 58 percent to 42 percent margin of victory in a July referendum.
" It is good for the city. It brings an attraction to the city," said one voter. " I don't condone gambling, but I do condone 2,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs and I think the city of Springfield does need permanent employment to revitalize the city, " said another voter.
But across the river in West Springfield, voters in the town of 30,000 people had a different take on the casino project proposed by Hard Rock International. A grassroots group led by Nathan Bech highlighted concerns about traffic, social ills, and the impact a casino would have on small businesses to defeat the casino project at the polls in September by a lopsided 55 percent to 45 percent margin
" We really got the word out. People knew the facts and they voted and we are not going to have a casino in West Springfield."
A five-year effort by Mohegan Sun to build support for a $1 billion resort casino in the town of Palmer ran into a grassroots group called Quaboag Valley Against Casinos. Co-president Charlotte Burns said they made the case the big casino with two hotels and a water park would destroy the character of the rural town of 12,000 people.
" It is like a shadow of doom has been hanging over this town ever since Mohegan came along and now it has lifted."
Mohegan Sun lost at the polls on Election Day by fewer than 100 votes. The company petitioned for a recount, but by the time the hand count of the ballots on November 26 confirmed the results the company had moved on to pursue another project in the Boston area.
Voters in Milford, a town about 20 miles outside of Boston, said “no” by a two to one margin to a casino proposed by Foxwoods. Voters in the eastern Massachusetts city of Everett overwhelmingly backed a project pushed by casino mogul Steve Wynn.
East Boston voters and Revere voters split on a casino project on the Suffolk Downs racetrack property that straddles the two communities. So a vote on a new Revere-only project will take place early in 2014.