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Developers seek upper hand in race for casino project

Details of resort-style complex for Milford revealed; at least six others pitched around state

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / June 16, 2010

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As state lawmakers weigh legalization of casinos, a developer yesterday outlined plans for a massive gambling hall in Milford, a $600 million resort-style complex with up to 3,000 slot machines, five restaurants, and a 300-room hotel.

The Crossroads Casino is one of seven that have been pitched in advance of the state Legislature’s action on gambling, but it is one of the more detailed proposals so far. The 275,000-square-foot main hall would also feature 100 table games and 24-hour food service.

Named for its location near the intersection of interstates 495 and 90, the complex would have a facade fashioned out of New England granite.

“We want to give a more traditional look and feel, as opposed to glitzy Las Vegas,’’ said developer David Nunes, chief executive of Ajax Gaming Ventures. “It will still have all the bells and whistles of Las Vegas, though.’’

His pitch comes as casino builders try to attract attention — and investment funds — to their proposed facilities as the state Legislature nears final votes on expanding gambling in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts House earlier this year approved legislation to legalize two casinos and authorize the state’s four racetracks to host slot machines. Senate lawmakers are expected to vote on a three-casino plan within weeks. The versions would have to be reconciled and get a final sign off from Governor Deval Patrick, a casino supporter.

Other casinos have been pitched for locations in New Bedford, Palmer, and in East Boston at the Suffolk Downs horse track. Two Wampanoag Indian tribes are also proposing competing casinos at separate sites in Fall River.

In the end, though, only a few would get the right to build, as lawmakers have indicated they want strict limits on the number of facilities. That sets the stage for a fierce competition, with casino developers already trying to secure any foothold they can.

For example, Nunes argued that his location near the intersection of 90 and 495 is ideal for drawing people from Maine and New Hampshire, as well as for casino goers from the South and West who now patronize the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos in Connecticut, or the Twin River complex in Rhode Island.

“This repatriates more dollars than any other location in the state,’’ Nunes said. “We’re losing all those dollars right now, and it’s time to recapture them.’’

Nunes has limited experience in the casino world. He has previously worked with Donald Trump on an unsuccessful bid to build a casino in Johnston, R.I., and he teamed with the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe more than a decade ago on their failed effort to build a gambling facility in Fall River. Most of his career has been focused on developing office, retail, and government properties across the country. His largest Massachusetts project was development of a 750,000-square-foot office and retail development in Watertown now owned by Harvard University.

However, Nunes’s partner in the Crossroads project is William Warner, a former executive at Station Casinos, which has developed and operated 19 gambling complexes in Nevada and California. Warner said the 187-acre Milford site is attractive because it has room to expand. Already he and Nunes have developed plans for a second building phase that would include a second “boutique’’ casino hall, retail stores, and additional hotel rooms.

“This site has the acreage and the footprint to create a regional entertainment complex that could compete with any facility across the country,’’ said Warner, who left Station Casinos to open his own development and planning firm based in Las Vegas.

But the Crossroads project also faces significant hurdles. State lawmakers have indicated any final legislation would require proponents to secure the backing of the community where the facility is located. Milford is a community of 30,000 people about 40 miles southwest of Boston.

Nunes and Warner were scheduled last night to unveil their plans to the board of selectmen. The chairman of the board, William D. Buckley, said the developers must address concerns about water and sewer capacity, as well as traffic around the proposed site.

The developers said they would pay for a new ramp into the casino site from Interstate 495, but Buckley said Milford officials are still concerned the facility would affect already crowded local roads.

Ultimately, he said, it will be up to residents to decide whether a casino is something they want to invite.

“It’s really a question of whether it fits with the community’s standards,’’ Buckley said. “We need to find out the impacts on traffic and jobs, and what the impact will be on local businesses. It doesn’t do any good to create 1,000 casino jobs on one side, if we’re just going to lose them on the other.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.