For Foxwoods Massachusetts, days of reckoning lie ahead

Courtesy Liberty Square Group A rendering of the resort casino project proposed by Foxwoods in Milford, Mass., designed to look like a college campus.

In Massachusetts, the casino-licensing process has turned into a battle of attrition.

After Election Day claimed two applicants - including Mohegan Sun, which has asked for a recount of referendum votes in Palmer - three bidders for two licenses remain.

The still-standing group includes Foxwoods and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, partners in a plan to develop a $1 billion resort casino in Milford, a Boston suburb of about 27,000 people. The Foxwoods Massachusetts project is vying for the Greater Boston license also sought by Wynn Resorts' Everett plan. Up until last Tuesday, Suffolk Downs, the race track in East Boston and Revere, was in the running, too.

How will Foxwoods' chances look at week's end? Will it survive a Nov. 19 referendum in Milford? How about a Dec. 9 vote among Milford's elected town meeting members?

Some casino opponents think the tide has turned in their favor.

"Eight (Massachusetts) communities have now voted against either a casino or a slots parlor," Steve Trettel, co-chairman of Casino-Free Milford, said last week. "There's a groundswell. The people are speaking. They're not listening to these casino companies' slick campaigns anymore."

Trettel cited East Boston, where Election Day voters rejected the Suffolk Downs plan. Although Revere voters approved the project, the East Boston vote appeared to eliminate it from contention.

Clyde Barrow, the gaming expert who directs the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, isn't so sure the Election Day referendums reflect a sea change in public opinion.

"You have to look at each election closely," he said, "and in each case, there were some idiosyncratic factors at play."

Barrow said Suffolk Downs simply couldn't recover from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission's vetting process, which raised questions about the suitability of Caesars Entertainment, a partner that bowed out of the project. Mohegan Sun, on the other hand, might have been undone by "outside money," perhaps from supporters of MGM Resorts' still-standing proposal in Springfield, he said.

As for Milford's upcoming referendum, "you don't know which way it's going to go," Barrow said.

Before then, however, Foxwoods Massachusetts partners will face a suitability hearing scheduled to begin Wednesday in Boston. The gaming commission has set aside two consecutive days for the hearing and could then render a "determination" as early as Friday.

Barrow said he doubts Foxwoods will emerge unscathed, given the high standard the commission set in considering the Suffolk Downs partners and its earlier rejection of an applicant for the state's one available slots parlor license.

"I'm skeptical," Barrow said of Foxwoods' prospects for suitability clearance. He suggested that this year's federal theft indictments of a former Mashantucket Pequot tribal chairman and his brother, then a sitting member of the tribal council, will prove problematic.

Michael Thomas, the former tribal chairman convicted by a jury, is to be sentenced Nov. 19, the same day as the Milford vote.

Scott Butera, Foxwoods Resort Casino's president and chief executive officer, has spearheaded the Foxwoods Massachusetts project since February. He said last week that the partnership had received a draft of the suitability report prepared by the commission's Investigations and Enforcement Bureau.

"I don't think there are things we want to dispute (in the report)," he said. "There are some questions that need to be answered."

Butera wasn't gloating over the apparent demise of the Suffolk Downs project.

"We've been spending a lot more time focusing on Milford than on what's going on with other projects," he said. "Massachusetts is a tough place to be successful. … Nothing comes easy."

He said he's confident Foxwoods' pitch to Milford residents will win out.

"Our message has been very consistent," he said. "We've created something that has tremendous social and economic benefits, a fully integrated experience that's much more than just a casino. We've designed something that incorporates the history of Massachusetts and the area.

"We've spent a lot time working with the town and its advisers on something that would make Milford a better place," he said.

Butera said the Foxwoods Massachusetts project would provide 3,000 construction jobs and 3,500 permanent jobs once it's built. And, in a host community agreement, Foxwoods has promised the town more than $33 million in upfront payments and annual payments thereafter of $35 million a year.

'High-risk' project

One high-profile opponent of the project, William Buckley, chairman of Milford's Board of Selectmen, agreed that Foxwoods' message resonates with some people in town. But others, he said, are focusing on the social and other costs typically associated with casinos.

Milford doesn't need Foxwoods, he said.

"Their bonds are CCC-rated in part due to the decisions they've made. They earned that rating," Buckley said. "Milford has an AA rating. Milford's in far better shape than Foxwoods."

Buckley pointed to the Mashantuckets' recent financial restructuring, a years-long process that reduced the tribe's debt from more than $2.2 billion to $1.7 billion. Holders of more than $500 million in bonds were forced to take a "haircut," he said, which doesn't inspire confidence in Foxwoods' commitment to meeting its obligations.

"All we have to go on is their track record," Buckley said. "There's no doubt that this project is high risk."

If the Foxwoods partners are deemed suitable by the gaming commission and Milford voters approve the Foxwoods Massachusetts referendum, another vote would pose perhaps an even bigger hurdle.

On Dec. 9, Milford's town meeting would consider a zoning change for the Foxwoods Massachusetts site in the town's northeast corner, where a casino is not a permitted use. To change the zoning, two-thirds of the town meeting members would have to approve. The body comprises about 240 elected members, town officials and department heads.

Even a narrow victory in the referendum vote could be a bad sign for Foxwoods Massachusetts, according to Trettel, the Casino-Free Milford co-chairman and a town meeting member.

Town meeting votes, he said, tend to reflect "the will of the people."

"I know if my precinct voted overwhelmingly for the casino, I'd feel obligated to vote that way at the town meeting even though I'm against it," he said. "But if the referendum vote was close to 50-50, I'd be able to use my own discretion."

Brian Murray, one of the two selectmen who approved the town's host community agreement with Foxwoods Massachusetts, said he thinks voters will approve the project in a referendum that's likely to occasion "the largest turnout this town's ever seen." But winning the town meeting vote would be another matter, he said.

What if Foxwoods does survives the Milford votes?

"With Suffolk Downs out of the way, I think their chances for overall success would be great," Murray said. "I don't think the people behind the Everett proposal come close to having done the kind of work Foxwoods has done."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

A timeline

Foxwoods didn't enter the Massachusetts casino fray until nine months ago. Some key dates since then:

February
News surfaces that Foxwoods has joined the Crossroads Massachusetts partnership headed by developer David Nunes, a long-time proponent of a resort casino in Milford. Foxwoods CEO Scott Butera says Foxwoods will make a "substantial" equity investment in the project and will manage the facility once it's built.

April 8
Following a Butera-led presentation at Milford Town Hall, a skeptical Board of Selectmen calls for more specifics.

June 3
Butera and a newly assembled Foxwoods team return to town with detailed plans for a $1 billion "Foxwoods Massachusetts" project designed to resemble a college campus. Residents pack the Milford High School auditorium for the presentation.

Aug. 5
The Board of Selectmen votes 2-1 to negotiate a host community agreement with the Foxwoods Massachusetts partnership, with board Chairman William Buckley dissenting. Nunes hails the "vote of confidence" in the project.

Sept. 9
By the same 2-1 majority, selectmen vote to sign the agreement, which calls for more than $33 million in upfront payments to the town and projects annual payments of $35 million.

Nov. 13-14
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is scheduled to conduct a "suitability" hearing and air the results of background checks of project partners.

Nov. 19
Milford residents vote whether to approved the project.

Just the facts
What:
Foxwoods Massachusetts, a 980,000-square-foot resort casino featuring gaming, a hotel, spa/fitness facility, meeting and convention space, up to 10 restaurants, bar and lounge space and an on-site child care center.
Where: Milford, east of Interstate 495 between Route 85 and Route 16.
Partners: Foxwoods Massachusetts LLC, Mashantucket Pequot Gaming Enterprise, Ajax Gaming Ventures (David Nunes), David Hancock (architect).
Investment: $1 billion

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