In a region infatuated with competition, politics, and personalities, the battle for casino development rights in Greater Boston has all the elements of can’t-miss public theater.
The sniping and chest-thumping is already underway, in a clash of egos and corporate power that will unfold during the next 13 months, until the state gambling commission chooses a single winner.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake in the all-or-nothing contest among Suffolk Downs, led by lead investor Richard Fields; Wynn Resorts, the firm founded by Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn; and Crossroads Massachusetts, the development company of David Nunes, who met last Tuesday’s casino application deadline with just 10 minutes to spare. Two more casino applicants that did not declare specific sites could also potentially join the contest.
The competition has evolved exactly as the state gambling commission had hoped, attracting multiple, well-heeled rivals who have enormous incentive to try to outdo each other with more inventive and compelling projects.
Two of the projects are urban proposals in the heart of Greater Boston, which will face sharp questions about access and traffic. Suffolk Downs and partner Caesars Entertainment plan a $1 billion gambling resort at the 78-year-old racetrack on the East Boston-Revere line. Barely five miles away, Wynn plans a $1 billion hotel and casino project on vacant industrial land on the Mystic River in Everett.
Nunes controls 177 acres off Interstate 495 in Milford, about 35 miles from Boston, where he plans a suburban casino. Nunes has previously offered budgets for the project of $750 million or more, but recently declined to say how much he would spend. He does not want his competitors to know.
The personalities involved are as disparate as the projects.
Fields, 67, is excitable and passionate, self-effacing — at least in interviews — and obsessed with horses, ranches, and the outdoors. He formerly worked with Donald Trump and is known as an influential behind-the-scenes mover in the casino industry.
“I have this connection I can’t explain, an emotional connection with everything having to do with agriculture and saving farms and ranches, and that has brought me to saving this racetrack,” Fields said in a Globe interview.
Wynn, who turns 71 this month, has built some of the most famous casino hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, such as Bellagio, The Mirage, and the Wynn and Encore resorts. He is a celebrity billionaire, a collector of Picasso masterpieces, prone to bragging, but revered for his development vision and skill.
“We’re going to present our credentials and on paper we’re going to show them a first-class project,” said Wynn, speaking of the competition in Massachusetts. He cannot help but add: “And probably it will cause the Suffolk people to upgrade.”
Nunes, 52, has a far lower profile, though he believes he has the winning formula. The rural setting of the casino he proposes is similar to what most Massachusetts gamblers have grown accustomed to, from trips to the casinos in Connecticut.
“People who have gone to Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods want the same experience,” said Nunes, who is gregarious and laughs easily, but has a sharp tongue. “A lot of your gamblers are women over the age of 55, single, widowed, or divorced. Do they want to park in a dark garage in Everett? I gotta be honest.”
Frank Fantini, publisher of Fantini’s Gaming and Lodging Reports, said each Boston-area proposal has strengths.
“Everybody knows if Steve Wynn’s name is on a project, it’s going to be first class,” said Fantini. “We also know he operates at the top end. He doesn’t deal with your stereotypical little old lady playing 25-cent slot machines. To me, that’s his big advantage: If you want a signature development in Boston, he’s going to provide that.”
Suffolk Downs “gives you the opportunity to put gambling where it’s always been, at a racetrack, which could have a lot of appeal for those who are a little skittish about having a gambling operation next door,” said Fantini. “Caesars will bring cross marketing and the development of casino marketing as a consumer science. They have a lot of strength that way.”
Nunes lacks his own vast corporate empire. He is a dealmaker, skilled at assembling partnerships. He has recruited the respected casino management firm Warner Gaming to the Milford project, and recently announced the financial backing of Robert Potamkin, an auto-dealership magnate who holds a stake in SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia. Potamkin, who declined to be interviewed, and Nunes previously served together on the board of an independent school in Colorado.Continued...