James F. McHugh, a member of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, spoke to Winthrop business people about the casino licensing process at a Winthrop Chamber of Commerce monthly breakfast meeting Tuesday at the Lodge of Elks.
Suffolk Downs in East Boston has submitted a “first-phase” license application and paid a $400,000 application fee, the first step in its proposal to build a $1 billion casino/resort complex on the property. Winthrop has been designated as a “surrounding community” to the casino.
McHugh, an attorney and a retired justice, told the group that the Gaming Commission is a five-member board led by Chairman Stephen Crosby, former state secretary of administration and finance and former chief of staff for Governor Jane Swift.
McHugh, secretary for the Commission, said the Commission’s responsibilities are “to oversee all racing and expanding gaming in the Commonwealth.”
“We meet once a week on Tuesdays at 1 p.m.,” said McHugh. “All of our meetings are streamed on the Internet and we post all the transcripts of the meetings. We’re trying in every way we can to be transparent and open.”
He told the audience that the casino licensing process is “a complicated undertaking and endeavor.”
“While we want to move swiftly, we want to do it right and we want to avoid some of the problems that have occurred in other jurisdictions,” said McHugh.
He noted that the Commission will be announcing the hiring of an ombudsman, “whose sole responsibility will be to work with developers to ease their access and path through the permitting process and to work with cities and towns, the host communities and the surrounding communities to get the information and resources they need in order to deal with the agreements that they have to have in order for the application process to proceed.”
McHugh said there are two kinds of gaming licenses, a Class 1 casino license for table games and other casino games, and a slots [slot machine] license, of which there will be one statewide. There can be three Class 1 casino licenses issued. Suffolk Downs is vying for the one license to be issued in this region of the state.
“Suffolk Downs has indicated that it attends to apply for a Class 1 license for this region,” said McHugh, adding that five firms have indicated their interest in competing for the one Class 1 license in western Massachusetts.
McHugh said the initial Class 1 license is for 15 years and the initial application fee “is not less than $85 million.”
Relating the topic of his speech to the town of Winthrop, McHugh said that there are three funds that will be distributed from the overall gaming revenue fund “that are of primary interest to” Winthrop: the local aid stabilization fund, which is designed to supplement the local aid already received from the state on an annual basis; a transportation and infrastructure and development fund to deal with the improvement of transportation in Winthrop; and a community mitigation fund.
McHugh said once the Commission finishes the first phase of the application process and declares that a casino developer is a qualified applicant, the applicant will fill out a phase two application which is site specific.
“That’s when we want to see what the development is going to look like and where it’s going to be. That’s when the host community agreements have to be in place and when the surrounding community agreements have to be in place.”
McHugh said the Commission would then hold public hearings in the host and surrounding communities.
“We will get everybody’s input and then make a judgment as to whether the applicant gets a license and the conditions that should be attached to the license.” Winthrop is closely monitoring the casino process. Councilor-at-Large Larry Powers and Councilors Craig Mael and Russell Sanford sit on the Council Committee that has been meeting regularly to get residents’ input and opinions about a possible casino at Suffolk Downs. The committee is setting the foundation for another yet-to-be-appointed committee that will negotiate a mitigation agreement with Suffolk Downs relating to the impact the casino would have here.