Encore allowed to expand its gaming footprint

Casino operator can add gambling east of Broadway

THE MASSACHUSETTS Gaming Commission voted 4-1 on Wednesday to allow Encore Boston Harbor to expand its gambling operations in Everett to a new property under development across the street from the company’s existing casino.

The commission bent over backwards to accommodate the expansion, interpreting a 2013 vote by Everett voters as a mandate for extending gambling beyond the company’s original footprint. In reaching its conclusion, the commission relied primarily on advice from its own advisors as well as lawyers working for Encore and the city of Everett, two entities that favored the expansion.

The decision means Encore, which is owned by Wynn Resorts, can now move forward in the regulatory process with an east of Broadway proposal calling for a theater, a nightclub, a parking garage, and rooms for sports betting and poker. The new facility would be connected to the existing one by a footbridge across Broadway.

The decision doesn’t mean the project has final approval, just that gambling can be part of the proposal.

The decision also raises the possibility of future gambling expansions at Encore and possibly the state’s other gambling facilities, although commissioners tried to tailor their decision as narrowly as possible to avoid that.

The four commissioners who supported the expansion – chair Cathy Judd-Stein, Nakisha Skinner, Jordan Maynard, and Brad Hill – decided Everett voters didn’t have to be surveyed again on the issue of an expanded gambling footprint because the June 2013 vote was clear enough.

The vote in 2013 was 5,320 in favor of the casino project to 833 opposed, a winning margin of 86.4 percent.

The ballot in 2013 was specific, asking whether Everett should “permit the operation of a gaming establishment licensed by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to be located at the property located on Horizon Way (off ‘Lower Broadway’) in Everett, formerly known as the Monsanto Chemical Site?”

The reference to Horizon Way and the Monsanto Chemical Site clearly referred to the existing casino site (although a lawyer for Wynn suggested Monsanto or its predecessor companies owned the property across the street at one time), but another document that was mailed to voters at the time – the host community agreement between Everett and Wynn — said Wynn “would acquire land and options to acquire land in and around the area.”

The commissioners interpreted that language to mean voters were aware of and supported Wynn expanding beyond its original footprint and that the expansion would include gaming even though gaming was not mentioned.

In 2013, and later when the casino opened in 2019, Wynn officials talked about expanding across the street but never with gaming.

“We want to work with the city to create an entertainment district. It’s not all going to be our company – Wynn,” said Wynn CEO Matt Maddox in 2019. “We want to work with lots of local developers, potentially other hoteliers, convention centers, etc. But our idea, along with the mayor’s, is to continue to redevelop the area so it’s known as the entertainment district in the Northeast.”

An artist rendering of the proposed complex across Broadway from Encore Boston Harbor. (Photo courtesy of Encore Boston Harbor)

When Encore first suggested a development east of Broadway last year, it focused on restaurants, bars, hotels, and parking space – no gambling. Only after sports betting was legalized in Massachusetts did Encore change course and ask to include rooms for sports betting and poker in the east of Broadway expansion.

Eileen O’Brien, the lone dissenting commissioner, said the language of the ballot was clear about where Wynn’s gambling facility would be located. She said what troubled her about the commission’s decision to allow Wynn to extend beyond the original footprint was that it set no boundary on the expansion.

Jonathan Silverstein, an attorney representing Everett, said the boundary would be near the existing casino site and not all of Everett. As for where exactly it would be, he said: “I’ll know it when I see it.”

That didn’t sit well with O’Brien. “I still don’t know where the outer boundaries are,” she said “I’m not comfortable with that ‘I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it’ response.”

Judd-Stein said there had been no opposition from Everett residents to expanding gambling across Broadway, but O’Brien said no one has asked residents what they think or held a hearing where they could voice any concerns.

The four commissioners, along with Wynn Resorts and Everett, said they wanted to avoid holding another vote on the expansion because the election would cost a lot ($130,000) and delay the development process.

In the end, the commissioners crafted a resolution that largely sidestepped the boundary issue by concluding that the 2013 vote supporting the casino also indicated support for Encore’s current proposed expansion across the street.