A 'vote of confidence' for Foxwoods Massachusetts

Foxwoods Massachusetts' come-from-behind bid for the Greater Boston casino license was cast in a new light Tuesday, the day after Milford selectmen voted 2-1 to negotiate a "host community agreement" with developers of the
$1 billion project.

David Nunes, a Foxwoods partner who first pitched a Milford casino in 2008, said the vote "signals a vote of confidence in the development efforts of Foxwoods." Foxwoods joined the project earlier this year.

Scott Butera, Foxwoods Resort Casino's president and chief executive officer, heads the Foxwoods Massachusetts partnership.

"They've been listening to Nunes for four years," Nunes said of Milford officials. "Foxwoods just got involved in February and look what they've done. The community put a lot on their shoulders, and Scott and his team did a heck of a job."

Selectmen indicated the agreement could be completed in two to three weeks, setting the stage thereafter for a referendum in 60 to 90 days, the next step in a process outlined in Massachusetts' 2011 expanded-gambling law.

"It fits perfectly with our timetable," said Nunes, who serves as Foxwoods Massachusetts' chief development officer. "There'd be enough time for a referendum vote at the end of October or early November. That gives us plenty of time to complete our application (to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission) by Dec. 31."

Two other projects are on a path to compete for the Greater Boston license. Wynn Resorts, which has proposed a $1.2 billion project in Everett, secured a host community agreement in April and won a referendum vote in June. Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, which plans to develop a $1 billion resort casino at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, has yet to sign an agreement.

Applicants also must pass background checks being conducted by the gaming commission's Investigations and Enforcement Bureau.

In Milford, the Foxwoods Massachusetts project could turn on a town meeting vote on a zone change for the development site. Such a vote, among elected town meeting members, would take place after the referendum, if necessary.

If Foxwoods Massachusetts advances to the final stage in the licensing process, Nunes said, he likes its chances.

"I've always believed we have the best location in the state for a destination gaming resort," he said of the Milford casino's 187-acre site east of Interstate 495 in the northeast part of town. "We've flushed out a lot of issues in the last 90 days. The town has taken us through the wringer. Everett hasn't taken Wynn through the wringer. Suffolk Downs has issues. ... I like the fact that they're in a quagmire and we've been vetted. We can solve our issues."

Boston mayoral candidates have differed over whether referendum voting on the Suffolk Downs project should be limited to residents of East Boston, where the site is located, or should take place throughout all of Boston.

At Monday night's Board of Selectmen meeting in Milford, selectmen Dino DeBartolomeis and Brian Murray endorsed the start of formal negotiations with Foxwoods Massachusetts, while William Buckley, the board's chairman, dissented. A negative vote would have derailed the project.

Murray said Tuesday he was confident that Foxwoods Massachusetts' representatives had provided the town and its residents with enough information "to decide whether this project makes sense."

Eliciting as much information as possible always has been his interest, he said, adding, "The statute really calls for a townwide vote, not a decision by three members of the Board of Selectmen."

Murray said he was impressed with the Foxwoods Massachusetts proposal "to the extent I feel comfortable putting it before voters."

Casino-Free Milford, a citizen's group opposed to casino development in the town, recommended that selectmen not enter into formal talks with Foxwoods Massachusetts until the developers addressed certain concerns.

Steve Trettel, co-chairman of the group, said a series of public meetings the developers held in recent weeks was "incomplete" and controlled by the developers instead of selectmen. He said issues that were discussed, including the project's potential impacts on traffic, water and sewer systems, property values and crime rates, needed more exploration, while others, like the environment, the influx of workers and social costs, were not dealt with at all.

"Obviously, we'll switch gears," Trettel said of the group's strategy going forward. "We'll take a look at the host agreement if it's signed and then focus on the referendum. We've had to emphasize the negative because no one else will. It hasn't been a balanced presentation."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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