Casino developers rejected at referendum will have an easy path to Southeastern Mass

The 10 applicants for the state’s casino and slot parlor licenses all hope to win the support of local voters in the cities and towns where they have proposed their gleaming gambling projects. But for any companies that fail at the ballot box, the state gambling commission has made it easier to try again — in Southeastern Massachusetts.

Casino developers rejected in municipal referendums can propose new projects in the southeastern region without paying another application fee or repeating arduous background checks, the gambling commission decided today.

By making it easy for rejected developers to stay in the hunt for a casino license, the commission is hoping to encourage competition in the southeast region, which only recently opened to commercial casino companies.

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The chance for rejected developers to seamlessly pursue a proposal in the southeast would be available to Penn National Gaming, which lost out two weeks ago in Springfield, when the city backed a rival proposal from MGM.

Penn hasn’t given up on winning a Massachusetts license, telling the gambling commission that it wants state investigators to push ahead on a company background check despite the failure of its Springfield plans. A Penn spokesman said this week the company is evaluating its options.

The state’s 2011 casino law authorized up to three resort-style casinos, no more than one in each of three regions of the state, and a single slot parlor, which can be built in any region. The casino law froze commercial casino bidding in the southeast region to give the Mashpee Wampanoag time to make progress on a tribal casino, which would be approved under a federal process separate from the state’s competition. The tribe wants to build a casino in Taunton.

But with the Mashpee facing legal hurdles to federal approval, the gambling commission in April voted to lift the freeze on commercial casino applications in the region, to ensure the southeast would not fall too far behind other areas. The southeast could be a risky bet for developers: If the tribe makes great progress over the next year or so, the commission is not obligated to issue the commercial license.

“Nothing that we’re doing today changes anything about the tribe’s ability” to pursue its federal approvals for a tribal casino, said Commissioner James McHugh.

The commission wants to be ready by September 2014 to award a commercial license in the southeast, about six months after licenses are expected in the Greater Boston and Western Massachusetts regions.

The commission today tentatively set a September application deadline in the southeast for developers not currently applying for another Massachusetts casino or slot license. New applicants will have to pay the same $400,000 fee and submit to similar background checks as applicants in other regions.

No proposal can win a state gambling license unless endorsed by the voters of its host community. The first of those votes is June 22 in Everett. Springfield will vote on the MGM project in July. The other referendums are expected to be scheduled for the fall.