Wareham gaming proposal gets cool reception

Local senator not on board; Rosenberg urges caution

A QUINCY DEVELOPER with an interesting Wareham racino proposal called on the Legislature to revisit the state’s gaming statute, but early feedback from Beacon Hill and one of the drafters of the law suggested the idea was unlikely to gain any traction any time soon, if at all.

Thomas O’Connell, a developer who previously built the Marina Bay Complex and Granite Links Golf Club in Quincy, on Tuesday unveiled his $300 million proposal for Wareham Park just off of Route 25. The park, on the site of a sand pit, would feature a new thoroughbred race course with a 1-mile track, a new ballpark for the local Cape Cod League team, a 171-room hotel, and a sports field complex for local teams. O’Connell said the park would revive thoroughbred horse racing in Massachusetts and employ 1,000 full-time employees.

O’Connell said he needed two key extras to make the project work, a new interchange to the property off of Route 25 and a state license for a slots parlor that would be attached to the track. The slots parlor is a big ask, since the state’s current gaming law permits only three resort-style casinos – one out west (MGM in Springfield), one in Greater Boston (Wynn Resorts in Everett), and one in southeastern Massachusetts – and one slots parlor (Plainridge Park in Plainville).

O’Connell wants the Legislature to tweak the law to give the Massachusetts Gaming Commission more flexibility in determining what type of facility should go in southeastern Massachusetts, allowing for the possibility of a second slots parlor.

“The market has changed since the casino law was written,” O’Connell said at a press conference in the ballroom at Granite Links. He predicted a resort-style casino would never get built in the southeastern Massachusetts region because the market is already saturated.

“The only thing that would be accomplished with that is there would be a destabilization and cannibalization of the existing license holders, and that makes no sense,” he said.

Notos Group, the company O’Connell created to advance the Wareham Park project, has retained two lobbying firms – Preti Strategies and Considine & Furey LLC.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is currently trying to decide what to do with a request to revisit a casino proposal from Mass Gaming & Entertainment for Brockton, but at some point in the near future it will probably have to step back, update its analysis of the Massachusetts casino market, and decide what course of action to take in southeastern Massachusetts.

Stan Rosenberg, the former state senator who drafted the original gaming law, said O’Connell’s pitch to Beacon Hill raises a host of complicated issues. First off, no casino has been approved for southeastern Massachusetts yet because everyone is still waiting to see if the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe will gain the necessary federal approvals to open a casino in Taunton. That process has dragged on for years, but regulators are wary of moving ahead with a commercial casino as long as there is a possibility of a tribal facility; no one wants to end up with two resort-style casinos in the same region.

Rosenberg also warned that anything could happen once the Legislature starts debating changes to the casino law. A Worcester lawmaker is already pushing for a casino in that area, and once the debate begins it’s unclear what will emerge.

“You open that statute up and it is going to be another full-blown casino debate in Massachusetts,” Rosenberg said. “I would say proceed with extreme caution.”

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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.

Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton, whose district includes the property where O’Connell wants to build, said he would not be supporting the project. He said the Legislature should follow through on the gaming law’s original plan and develop a resort-style casino in southeastern Massachusetts before doing any tinkering.

“There is plenty of room in the market for a destination casino in Region C,” Pacheco said, using the regulatory term for southeastern Massachusetts. He dismissed O’Connell’s analysis suggesting the market is saturated already. “He’s saying what he needs to say for his own interests,” the senator said.

Pacheco said southeastern Massachusetts shouldn’t settle for a slots parlor, which requires a minimum investment of $125 million, as opposed to the $500 million minimum investment required for a resort-style casino . “We don’t want to be in a position where southeastern Massachusetts gets the leftovers – again,” he said.