Encore’s ‘expansion’ starts to raise tricky questions

Who should we believe over at Wynn Resorts?

The question is starting to get interesting as the company is pitching a new complex across Broadway from the existing Encore Boston Harbor casino in Everett. The proposed project is big, with at least two hotels, a half-dozen restaurants and bars, retail stores, an event venue, and a massive 2,900-space parking garage — all connected to the casino on the other side of the street by a covered walkway bridge over Broadway. 

Wynn is doing everything it can to convince the Massachusetts Gaming Commission that its proposed new venture covering four blocks east of Broadway is separate and distinct from the casino across the street and should not be subject to the oversight of the commission.

At first, controversy arose over the size of the event venue, which was slated to have 1,800 seats — a problematic number because casinos are barred from opening venues with 1,000 to 3,500 seats. The limitation was set long ago to prevent casinos from using their gambling proceeds to dominate the local entertainment market. Wynn sidestepped that hurdle by lowering the size of its venue to no more than 999 seats, one less than the lower limit. 

In a presentation to the commission on February 10, officials from Wynn went out of their way to make it sound as if the casino and the proposed complex across the street had almost nothing to do with each other.

Chris Gordon, president of the development arm of Wynn Resorts, focused on how the bridge connecting the two properties would be open to the public, make it safer to cross Broadway, and improve traffic flow. He insisted it wasn’t a walkway allowing people to gain entrance directly into the casino, although it would appear to come close.  

Tony Starr, a Mintz Levin lawyer who works for Wynn, said the east of Broadway complex would be owned by a new limited liability corporation with no direct ties to the casino on the other side of the street. The idea, he said, was to have a Wynn affiliate build the new complex in phases and then lease the various elements out to other companies that would operate the hotels, restaurants, and entertainment venue.

Starr said it was possible the parking garage could be retained by a Wynn affiliate, but he insisted the parking garage was there to serve the new complex and not the casino on the other side of the street. (That’s somewhat of a big deal because parking — and the notion of discouraging people from driving to the casino — was a key issue when Encore Boston Harbor was originally licensed.)

Jacqui Krum, the senior vice president and general counsel at Encore Boston Harbor, put a fine point on it. “We do not believe this garage will be used primarily by visitors to Encore Boston Harbor,” she said. 

Starr’s PowerPoint insisted the proposed complex will be an island separate and apart from Encore Boston Harbor. “The hotels, restaurants, events center, parking garage, and utilities do not enhance Encore’s gaming area by making the entire facility a more attractive destination,” he said. 

On February 15, Craig Billings, the new CEO of Wynn Resorts, held a conference call with investment analysts to go over the company’s promising fourth quarter results. During his presentation, he made a number of comments that seemed to suggest the expansion east of Broadway had a lot to do with helping the casino west of Broadway.

Billings said Wynn had done a sale-leaseback arrangement with its Boston casino property to raise capital for a series of investments, including “additional parking and complimentary non-gaming amenities that will drive Encore Boston Harbor to even higher levels of performance.”

He also hailed the potential for growth at Encore Boston, and said the new parking garage across the street would help make that happen. “Parking, particularly on weekends, remains a constraint for us,” he said. 

At a Gaming Commission hearing on Monday to take public testimony, officials connected to the Chevalier Theatre in Medford drew attention to the inconsistencies coming from the Wynn camp and said the company couldn’t be trusted. The officials said Wynn officials are already breaking the rule on venue size by hosting “predatory” entertainment events (the B-52s and boxing nights) in the ballroom at Encore Boston Harbor. They warned that the casino could do the same across the street if it succeeded in escaping the oversight of the Gaming Commission.

Rep. Paul Donato of Medford didn’t mince words. “This is without a doubt part of the casino,” he said.

BRUCE MOHL

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Wu seeks to limit protests: Boston Mayor Michelle Wu proposes an ordinance placing restrictions on protests that target a specific residence. Wu, who herself has been the target of such protests, said the ordinance would allow such demonstrations only between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. 

– Wu said she tried to strike a balance between the rights of citizens to protest and the right of neighborhood residents to privacy. “In a moment of divided national politics, we can’t normalize the harassment and hate spilling over into our communities,” she said.

– Gov. Charlie Baker, who has been the target of such protests himself, applauded Wu for putting the issue on the table for discussion. Read more.

PioneerLegal: The Pioneer Institute is launching a legal arm to take on issues it considers important, including school choice, business regulation, and public records access. Jim Stergios, Pioneer’s executive director, hinted PioneerLegal could challenge the interpretation of a court decision that governors have used to reject public records requests. Read more.

Fare free: The Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority goes fare free for two years on all of its routes and says “it’s the fiscally prudent thing to do.” Read more.

OPINION

No more natural gas: Elena Fagoto and Alice Plane of Mothers out Front demand that the state’s gas utilities shift to renewables. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

Republican state lawmakers are calling for a review of the state’s pension holdings to determine if there are any holdings tied to Russian oligarchs or companies that can be divested. (Salem News) Gov. Baker says the state is exploring what contracts it holds with Russian businesses, but would not commit to immediately severing ties with Russian-related businesses, citing concerns about harming immigrant families here. (MassLive) Rep. Patrick Kearney of Scituate introduces a bill to ban all Russian-made products, including energy imports, from Massachusetts. (Wicked Local)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards will introduce a home-rule petition that would let the city block construction of a controversial electricity substation along the Chelsea Creek. (Boston Globe

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Nurses at St. Vincent Hospital vote 302-133 to maintain their affiliation with the Massachusetts Nurses Association. (Telegram & Gazette)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Ukrainians are bracing for an all-out assault by Russian forces, which have now surrounded Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, and assembled a massive convoy that is approaching the capital city of Kyiv. (Washington Post

US Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey both say they support President Biden’s Supreme Court pick, Ketanji Brown Jackson. (Salem News)

ELECTIONS

Republican congressional candidate Jeffrey Sossa-Paquette apologizes for tweeting support for Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene who was defending her appearance at a white supremacist conference. (MassLive)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

A new UN report on climate change paints a dire picture of how warming is affecting the planet, including mainstays of New England life like the lobster industry and the winter ski season. (Boston Globe)

The Department of Environmental Protection declares that the cleanup of the Varian site in Beverly is not working and toxic chemicals remain in the neighborhood – raising questions about why it took three decades for the state to realize that. (Eagle-Tribune)

Boston launches a new city office to connect young people with jobs in the “green” economy, but details are scarce on what that will entail or how many jobs it will aim to create. (Boston Globe

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The US Supreme Court declined for procedural reasons to consider an appeal by the Christian Gordon College of a SJC ruling, which found that a former social work professor was not a minister and thus protected by employment discrimination laws. But justices said the SJC took a “troubling and narrow” view of religious education and the court could consider a similar case in the future. (Gloucester Daily Times)

Many smaller communities worried about tree clearing are signing on in support of a court case challenging a 35-year-old zoning law that says communities cannot “unreasonably regulate” solar installations. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

During a Worcester event, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, other state officials, and advocates say the state has made progress in combating human trafficking. (Telegram & Gazette)

PASSINGS

Preston Settles, 15, of Newton dies two weeks after suddenly collapsing while competing during a high school basketball game. (WBUR)