NEWS

Move over, Las Vegas: Sands, Harrah's CEOs say Massachusetts is ready for casinos

Tom Benner

Top casino industry executives say they can't see why state lawmakers are taking so long to act on a bill legalizing casino gambling in Massachusetts.

``There's been gambling in this state since I was a child,'' said Sheldon Adelson, chief executive of gambling giant Las Vegas Sands Corp., at a six-hour State House hearing on gambling.

``When I was a kid, a teenager growing up in Dorchester 60 years ago, my father used to go to Suffolk (Downs) almost every day,'' he said. ``Gambling has been going on here forever.''

Adelson, 74, who maintains a home in Newton and is one of the richest people in America, said Massachusetts effectively has casino gambling now with Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun next doorin Connecticut.

``Eventually, it's opening up,'' Adelson said of the Massachusetts gambling market. ``Kansas just opened up, that's a real Midwestern (place), not as puritanical as Massachusetts.''

Gary Loveman, CEO of Harrah's Entertainment, said lawmakers have plenty of information on which to judge Gov. Deval Patrick's plan for three resort-style casinos in Massachusetts.

``In Massachusetts, you have a case where the two largest casinos in the world sit nearby, and we know that our residents visit those casinos extensively,'' said Loveman, who has a home in the Boston suburbs.

``We have the most aggressively marketed Lottery in North America, and the most successful. And we have both dog and horse track betting,'' he said. ``This is not a state that is debating should its resident gamble, that's been decided.''

Loveman expressed surprise when Rep. David Flynn, co-chairman of the legislative panel that hosted Tuesday's hearing on gambling revenues, acknowledged he's never visited a casino. Flynn, a Bridgewater Democrat, has been pushing to allow slot machines at the state's four race tracks.

``I'm continually struck by the fact that in Boston, an awful lot of influencers have never been to a casino,'' Loveman said. ``That makes it difficult to debate an issue of this sort, with absolutely no first-hand knowledge of the subject.''

While Harrah's Entertainment has partnered with Native American tribes on three casinos, Loveman said there's no guarantee that the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe will be able to deliver on its planned casino in Middleboro.

``Anyone who wants to stop this will have lots of different ways to stop it or slow it down,'' Loveman said. ``Slowing things down in the world of real estate development is largely the same as killing it.''

Others see an Indian casino as inevitable. The tribe is allowed by federal law to offer any gambling already allowed by its home state - in this case, so-called ``Class II'' gambling which covers Keno, high-stakes bingo, and non-house-banked card games.

The tribe could open such a facility right now in Mashpee, or at another location such as Middleboro with approval from the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But the tribe needs state approval to upgrade its offerings to ``Class III'' gambling - that is, slot machines, baccarat, craps, and house-banked table games.

``If we put our heads in the sand and sit on our hands and do nothing, in the next three to seven years we'll have a full-blown Indian casino,'' said Sen. Michael Morrissey, a Quincy Democrat and gambling proponent.

Patrick also expressed frustration to lawmakers that his casino plan, proposed in October, still hasn't come up for a vote.

Several hundred people packed into a State House auditorium for the hearing, many of them unionized hospitality workers who want to see the estimated 20,000 jobs projected from the three casinos.

``The people go to another state for the gambling, and that means no work for Massachusetts,'' Jody Ho of Quincy, a housekeeper at a Boston hotel, said as she waited for the hearing to begin.

Claudette Wilson of Brockton, also a hotel housekeeper, said: ``There are no jobs. We'd like for the casinos to be here, that would be nice for the people.''

House Speaker Sal DiMasi, who has generally opposed casinos, did not attend Tuesday's hearing. He said through a spokesman the bill won't be considered until the spring.

``This is the beginning of a long process, there's a lot of homework to be done,'' said DiMasi spokesman Dave Guarino.