Prospects for Massachusetts casinos heats up

Jul 17, 2007 5:40 AM

For years, especially while anti-gamer Mitt Romney occupied the Massachusetts governor’s office, prior owners of Suffolk Downs racetrack fought in vain to get approval for slot machines at the East Boston oval.

But the political atmosphere seems to be changing. And fast.

With the Wampanoag Indian Nation moving forward to get a state gaming compact, while eyeing a site in Middleborough, and Boston native, now gaming kingpin Sheldon Adelson, dickering with Gov. Deval Patrick for a casino in the Marlboro area, Boston Mayor Tom Menino suddenly finds Suffolk Downs as an ideal site for a billion-dollar gaming and entertainment location.

It appears that Suffolk Downs, whose history of top-flight racing belies its rundown condition, has become more palatable since a majority interest in the property was purchased a few months ago by real estate and gaming developer Richard Fields.

Menino said he met Fields at a recent charity function at the track and is now looking forward to seeing just what specific plans Fields has to offer. He said he was impressed with the idea of a $1 billion destination resort that would have hundreds of shops, dozens of restaurants, an arena for shows and other entertainment venues.

Also finding the Suffolk Downs development attractive were leaders of the Wampanoag Tribe. They indicated they would be happy to discuss the plans with Fields and Menino. Meanwhile, they are continuing their talks with Middleborough officials, hoping that an agreement can be reached before a July 28 town meeting.

Dealing with a tribal council would not be a new experience for Fields since he was involved in the development of a major casino for the Seminole Tribe in Florida.

More recently, Fields has been a partner in a group that is seeking the racing/gaming franchise in New York State.

As for gaming’s future in the Bay State, a panel, appointed by Gov. Patrick to study the costs and benefits of opening Massachusetts to expanded gambling, is expected to present its findings in a few weeks.

Other state officials who have indicated support for casinos are State Treasurer Tim Cahill and Senate President Therese Murray.

Still to be determined, however, are the legalities involving casinos, both private and tribal. The state attorney general reportedly is studying the need for legislation or the power of the governor to authorize a casino through a tribal compact.