McHugh worries politics could sink Wynn casino

Commissioner asks a profound question

As the Massachusetts Gaming Commission on Tuesday debated the pros and cons of Wynn Resorts versus Mohegan Sun, an interesting philosophical divide emerged among the commissioners about the ability of state, local, and casino officials to address traffic congestion that could determine whether a gambling resort succeeds or fails.

Commissioner James McHugh gave a slight edge to Wynn on just about every important casino metric: jobs, employee pay scales, capital investment, and local spending. But he worried that Wynn’s palace on the Mystic River may never get built because of the inability of casino executives to work together cooperatively with state and local officials to address traffic congestion issues at Sullivan Square.

“What do you do with a very good proposal that runs a very high risk of not getting off the ground?” McHugh asked his fellow commissioners.

It was a profound statement, indicating a lack of confidence in the ability of government to complete a task that nearly everyone agrees needs to be done.

Sullivan Square in Charlestown has been congested for years. The Wynn casino proposal for Everett, which was approved by the Gaming Commission on a 3-1 vote on Tuesday, will significantly increase traffic in the area. An estimated two-thirds of the casino’s vehicle traffic will come and go through the square.

McHugh, a Charlestown resident himself, sounded very pessimistic on Tuesday about finding a solution to the congestion. He said the state’s review of Wynn’s traffic mitigation efforts hasn’t been very positive so far, and wondered whether it was possible officials would conclude that fixing Sullivan Square was akin to putting a square peg in a round hole.

Then there was the political hurdles facing a solution. McHugh said whatever plan emerges from the state’s environmental review process, Wynn must still convince Boston to issue the permits necessary to transform that plan into reality. He wasn’t optimistic on that front, given that Boston and Wynn officials aren’t speaking to each other.

Boston officials last week wrote a blustery letter to the Gaming Commission accusing the agency, and particularly McHugh, of being biased in favor of Wynn and against Boston. “The city reserves its right to challenge the legality and enforceability of all of the commission’s decisions,” the letter said.

Steve Wynn sent a letter to the commission on Friday night blaming Boston for its “unreasonable and arbitrary attitude.” He added: “Boston has sought to use the enormous leverage of the license itself to extract from us amounts of money and conditions that are inconsistent with common sense.”

There were some encouraging signs late Tuesday, with both Walsh and Wynn issuing statements indicating they were open to dialogue.

McHugh noted former governor Bill Weld, an advisor to Wynn, had told the commission that he was optimistic that all the attention being paid to Sullivan Square would finally lead to a traffic solution there, much as all the political attention to a dirty Boston harbor finally led to the costly but necessary cleanup.

“I’m not sure I understand his optimism,” McHugh said.

The former judge said Wynn won strong support for its casino in Everett, but he noted top officials in Boston, Somerville, and Chelsea are all opposed to the Wynn casino. “Wynn is surrounded by communities that do not have a great deal of support for their effort,” he said. “I question whether this project can muster the kind of collaborative energy to move forward.”

McHugh voted for the Mohegan Sun proposal not because he thought it was better, but because he thought political resistance to a Revere casino would be less. McHugh’s fellow commissioners said they thought state officials would have told them by now whether they thought a solution to Sullivan Square congestion was impossible. Commissioner Gayle Cameron said she shared many of McHugh’s concerns, but she said she doesn’t believe there is such a thing as a problem without a solution.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“I really do see great risks,” she said. “But in my mind, the benefits [of the Wynn proposal] slightly outweigh the risks.”

Cameron then added a postscript that seemed to sum up her more optimistic outlook. “I guess I have faith in human nature,” she said