No Dice: Lawmakers Pass Economic Bill, Omit Possibility Of Third Massachusetts Casino

Posted on January 13, 2021

The yearslong saga of a “Region C” casino in Massachusetts will continue for a few years more. At least.

Nearly a decade ago, Massachusetts passed the Expanded Gaming Act. Among its provisions, the new law permitted state regulators to issue three new Category 1 casino licenses. The state was divided geographically into three regions, each of which would host one of the new casinos.

So far regulators have issued two of those three licenses. MGM Springfield opened in August 2018, followed by Encore Boston Harbor in June 2019. But the wait for the third casino will necessarily take a bit longer following state lawmakers’ negotiations over a new $626.5 million economic development bill.

An original draft of the bill included a directive to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) to examine issuing a casino license to an operator in the third region. However, by the time the bill finally passed last week, such language had been removed.

Competition, other factors dissuading developers

Region C refers to the wealthy eastern third of Massachusetts, home to Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. It comprises five counties:

  • Barnstable
  • Bristol
  • Dukes
  • Nantucket
  • Plymouth

Encore Boston Harbor in Everett occupies Region A in the central third of the state. MGM Springfield is the Region B casino in the west.

In 2016, the MGC rejected a proposal from Mass Gaming & Entertainment to build a $677 million casino in Brockton in Plymouth County.

Multiple factors caused the regulators’ rejection. One was a plan by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe for a $1 billion casino just a few miles away in Taunton. That project remains unrealized. Another was the fact that the proposal came up well shy of the much larger plans that culminated in the MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor properties.

Since then, competition from other Massachusetts properties — and those in nearby states — has prevented other developers from entering  the fray.

Casino evaluation, sports betting both left out of economic package

As reported by the Fall River Herald News, Rep. Carol Doherty of Taunton had co-sponsored an amendment to the economic development bill that would require the MGC to study the Region C casino question in earnest.

Specifically, regulators would need to produce “an evaluation of economic conditions within region C and surrounding areas with respect to the region’s ability to sustain” a resort casino. Such an evaluation would include assessing the likelihood of a casino being able to “provide value to the region before 2024.”

However, lawmakers omitted the amendment as they rushed to pass a bill before the legislative session ended Jan. 6.

The casino study was one of several items that ultimately dropped from the bill. Legislation to bring sports betting to Massachusetts was left out as well. That said, lawmakers anticipate reintroducing a sports betting bill at the start of the new session.

COVID-19 affecting casino evaluation, bottom line

Normally, the most recent legislative session would have ended last summer. However, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the session’s extension into the new year. Indeed, the pandemic is partly to blame for slowing down progress toward evaluating the viability of a Region C casino.

The MGC began 2020 with an intention to collect information about “specific and business-related questions around a potential market analysis of Region C through a formal request for information.” Regulators did receive feedback, though the MGC had to alter its plans to evaluate it once the pandemic shifted everyone’s focus.   

Meanwhile, Massachusetts casinos have struggled significantly over the past year and especially during recent months.

In November 2020, Encore, MGM Springfield and Plainridge Park racing track and slots parlor in Plainville collectively totaled about $45 million in revenue. That represented a 43% decline year over year, with all three properties enduring their worst revenue month ever.

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