Published April 08. 2013 6:00PM Updated April 09. 2013 12:15AM
Milford, Mass. — Selectmen here were highly skeptical Monday night that a Foxwoods Resort Casino team will be able to adequately answer questions about a more than $1 billion casino project it is proposing for a site off Interstate 495.
"I just don't see how it can be done," Selectman Dino DeBartolomeis said, eliciting applause from a crowd of about 250 people at town hall.
All three selectmen commented following a presentation by Scott Butera, Foxwoods' president and chief executive officer, and other members of FCX Massachusetts LLC, an entity partnering on the Crossroads Massachusetts casino project. It is one of three projects competing for the one casino license to be awarded for the northeastern Massachusetts region.
The Board of Selectmen's chairman, Brian Murray, said the town has been dealing with a casino proposal since before 2009 and that heads of various municipal departments had asked for specifics years ago. Among the information sought, Murray said, was a survey of the proposed site to determine whether it contained Indian artifacts. Foxwoods' involvement in the project surfaced only last month.
"The time has passed for glossy pictures," Murray said. "We need to see specifics."
Selectman William Buckley, addressing what he called "the elephant in the room," said he was troubled by a letter the selectmen received last week regarding a long-time partner in the project, David Nunes, being stripped of his "authority and title" by other partners.
In the letter, Nunes said he had no faith in the project "given that the investors and Foxwoods have not invested the time to get to know the people of Milford."
Buckley said he was "flabbergasted" by the letter, which he called "mind-boggling." The selectmen called on Butera to return in six weeks with firm details of the project.
During a break, Butera said the casino discussion went well.
"It was great," he said. "Everyone was focused on the right issues. ... We're off to a good start."
Acknowledging that questions have surrounded the project and Foxwoods' belated involvement in it, Butera sought to assure officials and residents that FCX Massachusetts has the know-how and wherewithal to accomplish what it's proposing.
He said the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which owns the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut, will be closing on a debt restructuring in "two to three weeks" that will put it on sound financial footing.
"So the timing is right," he said.
The Crossroads Massachusetts plan calls for a 350- to 450-room luxury hotel and about 30 restaurants and retail shops. Butera said FCX would open an office next week on Milford's Main Street, where residents could come to offer suggestions on the design of the project.
Opponents of the project were well represented at the meeting, recognizable by the red T-shirts they wore. Members of the table-games dealers' union currently locked in contract negotiations with Foxwoods wore yellow T-shirts.
Members of the citizens' group Casino-Free Milford began picketing outside the town hall hours before the selectmen's meeting began.
John Seaver, co-chairman of the group, said he expected a "dog and pony show" at the meeting. While the selectmen indicated they would not entertain public comment, two residents did speak prior to Butera's presentation, both in strong opposition to the casino plan.
Casino-Free Milford objects to the casino proposal because of a "long laundry list" of negative impacts it associates with the plan, including increased traffic, diminished property values and increased crime, Seaver said.
"We're all for the concept of gambling," he said of the group's members. "Just not here. Milford is a small, residential, suburban town, and we don't want to turn it over to some multibillion-dollar outsiders.
Seaver said the group questions Foxwoods' ability to get the project funded.
"We know they have some financial problems," he said. "They defaulted on their debt and they're highly leveraged, which is not a good thing. Their revenues are way down.
"It doesn't seem like they're the kind of people you want your community married to."
Both of Foxwoods' competitors for the sole northeastern Massachusetts license updated their proposals last month.
Suffolk Downs, which is partnering with Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment, unveiled a model of the horseshoe-shaped hotel and casino it plans to build at the horse racing track that straddles the East Boston-Revere line. Wynn Resorts, also of Las Vegas, showed renderings of the $1.2 billion casino project it's proposing for a former industrial site in Everett, on the Mystic River.
Under the state's 2011 expanded gambling law, casino operators seeking licenses must negotiate agreements with host communities and win support from a majority of residents in a referendum.
In a poll conducted by the Boston Globe, Boston residents backed the Suffolk Downs proposal 44 percent to 37 percent.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission will also award a casino license for western Massachusetts, where four proposals have been presented, including a Mohegan Sun plan for Palmer. MGM Resorts International of Las Vegas and Penn National Gaming of Wyomissing, Pa., have proposed casinos for Springfield, while Orlando, Fla.-based Hard Rock International would build one in West Springfield.
A third license for the southeastern part of the state has been reserved for an Indian tribe, though it could be opened up to commercial bidding if a Mashpee Wampanoag proposal for Taunton fails to gain traction.