BOSTON – Local officials and a developer pitched lawmakers Tuesday on a bill that would pave the way for a planned horse track and gambling facility in Wareham, but the state senator from the area slammed the bill as an attempt by a "self-serving" developer to be given special treatment.
The bill in question, H 4070 filed by Rep. Susan Williams Gifford of Wareham, would allow the Massachusetts Gaming Commission the discretion to issue either a full-scale casino license or a slots parlor license in its southeastern Massachusetts region, but not both. The bill is a crucial piece of the plan for a $300 million mixed-use development proposed by the Notos Group.
Notos, which is led by the family behind the Marina Bay complex and Granite Links Golf Club in Quincy, wants to build a thoroughbred horse track and slots parlor, but the state's one slots parlor license has already been issued to Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville. But instead of proposing a full-scale casino, Notos is asking the Legislature to let the Gaming Commission issue a second slots license instead.
"We believe that our proposal is the ideal size for Southeastern Massachusetts, but our only goal in supporting Rep. Gifford's bill is to be able to compete. The legislation does not favor any specific project or developer," Thomas O'Connell, the founder of Notos Group, said.
If the bill were to pass, Notos would still have to convince the Gaming Commission to solicit proposals for a slots parlor in Southeastern Mass., or Region C as the commission refers to it, and then to select its project from the range of proposals that come in.
Wareham Town Administrator Derek Sullivan and Wareham Redevelopment Authority member Richard Swenson told the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies that the Notos project with a slots parlor would be a game-changer for the town.
"We believe that Region C, and in this case Wareham, deserves the opportunity to put forth a proposal that is the right fit for the region, one that will succeed and one that will be built," Sullivan said. "Wareham deserves the opportunity because such a project would be transformative for our economically disadvantaged community."
Tom O'Connell told the committee that his group's plan would "provide both Southeastern Mass. and the thoroughbred horse racing industry with a fighting chance to reap the benefits that were touted, but never realized, when the expanded gaming act passed in 2011."
But Sen. Marc Pacheco, who represents Wareham, said the bill filed by Gifford -- the representative did not attend Tuesday's hearing and previously did not respond to News Service interview requests -- would actually cut against the "collective vision" of the 2011 law, which called for three resort-style casinos and a lone slots parlor as the strategy that would "be best for our economy and creating jobs equitably in each region."
"We are now having legislation filed to go way beyond what our collective vision was about three destination-based casinos and I don't want to see Southeastern Massachusetts, Region C, treated differently than the other regions," Pacheco told the committee. "I think this legislation actually corrupts the process and legislation like it corrupts the process until we have completed the vision that we had for the commonwealth."
Pacheco, who was the only person to testify in direct opposition to the Wareham bill, said he wanted to "call this out" because he said his phone has been ringing off the hook with people from Wareham asking if the Legislature has "some kind of a deal with some entity to try to change the rules for one developer that wants to come through and not do the full destination-based casino, it might be too much of an investment for them."
Swenson, the Wareham Redevelopment Authority member, said Notos' market research shows that Region C cannot support a category one, or full-scale, casino.
"Common sense tells me that Region C can't support another class one license given the four class one casinos we have in relatively close range to where we're at, as well as the other class twos," Swenson said, referring to gaming facilities that have already opened in Massachusetts and in neighboring states. "The fact that the class one license for Region C sits in a drawer right now in the Mass. Gaming Commission tells us that as well."
Pacheco, who lives in Taunton, said he did not want to see his region of the state treated differently than other parts of Massachusetts. He said the point of allowing three regional resort casinos was to make the jobs and local revenue that come with those projects available equitably to different parts of the state.
"I'm all in favor of looking at other options for gaming once we complete the authorization that we've already passed. If not, then what we would be doing is helping people that are going to give us testimony that are very self-serving, they're basically coming to this committee and to the Legislature and saying, 'take care of me, take care of my deal. When you take care of my deal, we'll be OK,' " Pacheco said. "I say let us not corrupt the process, let the process play out."
The Region C casino license has been an issue for the Gaming Commission for years. The commission voted to reject a proposal for a casino at the Brockton Fairgrounds and last month decided against reconsidering that bid. Of concern when the commission rejected the Brockton proposal was the possibility of the Brockton casino competing with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe's planned $1 billion First Light Resort and Casino in Taunton, less than 20 miles from the site of the planned Brockton casino.
Since the commission denied the Brockton proposal, the decision to grant the tribe land in trust on which the tribe planned to construct the casino has been reversed and the future of the tribe's plan remains in doubt.