Union officials raise Great Wolf concerns

great wolf lodge, a newly refurbished resort and indoor water park in Fitchburg, opened to great fanfare in early June. Kim Schaefer, the company’s CEO and “Mama Wolf,” was on hand for the opening along with Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong. A few days later Cody Simpson, an Australian pop star and Dancing with the Stars contestant, gave a performance at the lodge before heading off on a European tour.

It was just the kind of buzz the Wisconsin—based Great Wolf was looking for to build excitement for the newest of its 12 facilities, where guests spend $200 a night for rooms that come with access to the water park included in the price. The resort also features restaurants, mini-golf, and a kids’ day spa that offers ice cream-themed manicures and chocolate facials. Fitchburg officials are hoping the water park will attract visitors to the economically depressed Gateway City.

But the publicity about Great Wolf in Fitchburg hasn’t been all good. Union officials are raising concerns that one state agency approved about $17 million in tax breaks for Great Wolf shortly after another state agency cited some of the company’s subcontractors for labor violations.

In December, the state Department of Industrial Accidents issued eight stop-work orders to eight subcontractors working on the resort. Six of the subcontractors were from out of state. All of the violations were related to workers compensation issues and were quickly corrected.

David Minasian, an organizer with the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, says Great Wolf should be decertified and made ineligible for the tax breaks because it violated state labor laws. Great Wolf says the violations were an oversight, the result of its general contractor being unfamiliar with Massachusetts laws regarding workers compensation.

The union says the violations went deeper than that, and included misclassifying some workers as independent contractors and paying others in cash. Minasian says the violations contribute to an underground economy that ultimately costs the state in terms of lost tax revenue. (Mark Erlich, president of the council of carpenters, sits on the board of MassINC, which publishes CommonWealth.)

A spokesman for Attorney General Martha Coakley, who investigates worker misclassification, declined comment.

More than 50 developers have lost tax breaks in the past because their projects failed to create the number of permanent jobs that were promised, but the union says state officials should go further and deny tax breaks to projects that fail to meet state labor standards during construction.

Business and municipal officials in the Fitchburg area oppose any effort to deny Great Wolf the tax breaks. David McKeehan, the president of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, wrote a letter to Greg Bialecki, the state secretary of Housing and Economic Development, shortly after the violations were announced, strongly urging him to push for Great Wolf’s tax breaks. Bialecki’s agency oversees the council that approves local tax breaks.

“To say that this is a critical project for the area would be an understatement; it is the single largest investment being made in the economy of this region right now,” he wrote in the letter. McKeehan called the idea of rescinding the tax breaks “absurd.”

“The city of Fitchburg understood what was going on before the benefits were extended,” he said. He expects the lodge to bring in $1 million in hotel rooms taxes alone, as well as create hundreds of jobs and bring people from all over the northeast to Fitchburg.

Susie Storey, a spokeswoman for Great Wolf, says the project will be good for Fitchburg. She says 250 full-time and 205 part-time workers have been hired at the resort and more than 20 Massachusetts-based subcontractors helped build it, receiving pay totaling between $7 and $8 million.

Storey downplayed the resort’s use of contractors from out of state. “Great Wolf Lodge used a few out-of-state contractors that have specialized skills and knowledge related specifically to indoor water park construction,” she said.

State Sen. Jennifer Flanagan of Leominster and Rep. Stephen DiNatale of Fitchburg also sent a joint letter to Bialecki, adding their support for Great Wolf.

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Less than two weeks later, the Massachusetts Office of Business Development invited the resort to reapply for the tax breaks. Great Wolf was asked to provide a description of each allegation of non-compliance, a list of citations issued and the entities who received them, and documentation proving each incident has been resolved.

In March, the Great Wolf resort received the tax breaks — $16.5 million in local tax relief spread out over 20 years and $680,000 in state tax credits.