With entry of Hard Rock, casino field rounding out ahead of Tuesday deadline

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR HARD ROCK INTERNATIONAL - Jim Allen, Chairman, Hard Rock International, left, Eugene J. Cassidy, CEO, Eastern States Exposition, Donald R. Chase, Chairman, Eastern States Exposition, and Hamish Dodds, right, CEO, Hard Rock International, celebrate the announcement of Hard Rock International's application submission for Hard Rock Hotel & Casino New England at Eastern States Exposition by presenting custom guitars in West Springfield, Mass., on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. (Photo by Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Invision for Hard Rock International/AP Images)
Jim Allen of Hard Rock International, Eugene Cassidy and Donald Chase, of Eastern States Exposition, and Hamish Dodds of Hard Rock were at a press conference Friday to announce their casino proposal. (AP)
Invision for Hard Rock International

WEST SPRINGFIELD — In a glitzy ceremony replete with a live 1980s hair-band rocker and a dead pop star’s famous leather jacket, Hard Rock International joined the crowded field of applicants Friday competing for the sole casino resort license in Western Massachusetts.

The $700 million to $800 million Hard Rock project at the Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds joins three other casino resort hopefuls in the west, MGM Resorts, Penn National Gaming, and Mohegan Sun, and probably rounds out the field before Tuesday’s state application deadline.

As the state’s fledgling gambling industry approaches its first major milestone next week — applicants have until 5 p.m. Tuesday to file extensive financial documents and pay a nonrefundable $400,000 fee — it is conceivable that each available casino license will have at least two bidders, a level of competition that seemed unlikely a few months ago.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

In the Greater Boston and Worcester region, projected to be the most lucrative casino market in the state, Suffolk Downs, with partner Caesars Entertainment, was the only viable contender for much of last year.

But the East Boston racetrack is facing a late challenge from Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn, who has signed an option to buy land in Everett for a hotel and gambling resort, setting up a battle between two of the biggest names in the gambling industry, with billions of dollars on the line. By Friday night, Suffolk Downs had paid its application fee; Wynn had not.

Developer David Nunes, who controls a site in Milford, also within the Greater Boston casino region, said in an interview Friday that he intends to file the fee by the deadline “with a significant gaming partner.”

The state’s 2011 gambling law authorizes up to three resort casinos, each costing at least $500 million, with no more than one resort in each of three regions of the state. The resorts will pay a 25 percent state tax on gambling revenue.

The state gambling commission is also accepting applications for development rights for a single slot machine parlor, which may be built in any region. The slot parlor is limited to 1,250 machines and no table games, with a minimum initial investment of $125 million and a 49 percent tax rate.

Plainridge Racecourse, a harness racing track in Plainville, was the first applicant for the slots license, and for much of 2012 appeared to be the only entity pursuing the license.

But in the final weeks before the deadline, George Carney, owner of Raynham Park, struck a deal with Greenwood Racing, which owns Parx Casino & Racing outside Philadelphia, to propose a slot parlor at the simulcast facility and former dog track in Raynham.

Plainridge has paid the $400,000 fee; Raynham has not. Tony Ricci, chief executive of Greenwood Racing, said in an interview Friday: “The check has been cut” and will be delivered by the deadline.

In Southeastern Massachusetts, commercial casino development is on hold to allow the Mashpee Wampanoag time to make progress on a tribal casino, which would be approved under federal law and does not need a state license. The state gambling commission has the power to open the region to commercial bids anytime it concludes the tribe will be unable to win federal approval for a casino, but the commission is not expected to act until at least March.

Carl Jenkins, a managing director for the consulting firm CBIZ Tofias, who has studied the Massachusetts casino market, said he is not surprised by the relatively few companies willing to compete in Greater Boston, because of a lack of open land, as well as the casino law provision that gives cities and towns the power to block casino projects. No casino can be licensed unless voters of the host community endorse the proposal. “There are so few opportunities to do it in the Boston area, I think the competition was always going to be limited,” he said.

Most of the casino companies that have decided to compete in Massachusetts have unveiled their proposals in elaborate public events, seeking to build excitement within the host community.

Hard Rock rolled out its plans at a luncheon Friday at the Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds, home of the annual Big E agricultural fair. The red-carpeted entrance to the event featured several items from Hard Rock’s extensive music memorabilia collection, including a bass guitar used in concert by Gene Simmons of KISS, a drum set from Joey Kramer of Aerosmith, a suit worn by Peter Frampton, and Michael Jackson’s red leather “Beat It” jacket.

The event began with a live performance by Bret Michaels, from the metal band Poison, who did two brief sets, including an acoustic version of the ballad “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”

The Eastern States Exposition has leased to Hard Rock about 38 acres of undeveloped land, previously used for parking on the Exposition’s 175-acre campus, said Eugene Cassidy, the exposition’s chief executive officer. The Big E fair would continue uninterrupted if the casino is built.

Cassidy called the Hard Rock proposal a “once-in-a-lifetime economic development opportunity,” that can help “preserve the past and ensure the future of the Big E.”

A Hard Rock New England resort would include a 400-room hotel, spa, restaurants and shops, a pool area, a concert and show venue of 3,000 to 4,500 seats, a permanent music memorabilia exhibition, and a 200,000-square-foot casino with 100 to 125 table games, and 2,500 to 3,000 slot machines, according to Hard Rock. Construction would take about two years, said Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International.

Hard Rock on Friday paid its $400,000 application fee to the state. MGM and Penn National, each of which has proposed an urban gambling resort in Springfield, have already submitted fees. Mohegan Sun, which has proposed a casino in Palmer, had not submitted the fee Friday, though people familiar with the project said Mohegan will submit by the deadline.

Clairvest, a Canadian firm, has explored sites in Massachusetts for a slots parlor, but has not yet submitted an application.

Chicago casino and real estate tycoon Neil Bluhm, chairman of Rush Street Gaming, has expressed interest in bidding for a casino license in Massachusetts.