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Between the Lines: What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Casino maneuverings leave a trail of broken hearts.

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Wednesday, December 04, 2013

There’s something rather romantic about the way Mitchell Etess, Mohegan Sun’s CEO, talks about his company’s new partnership with the Suffolk Downs racetrack.

In a statement announcing the deal last week, Etess might have been describing two new lovers who’d finally found one another after other, disappointing relationships: “Mohegan Sun and Suffolk Downs each began our pursuit of a place in the Massachusetts gaming industry in different ways and different locations. Circumstances brought us together in recent days, and we immediately recognized that something truly special can be created in Revere.” He continued that theme in an interview with Boston Business Journal, saying, “This is maybe a shotgun marriage. But it’s a really good marriage.”

In the casino business, as in Hollywood, new love affairs sometimes follow uncomfortably close on the heels of old ones. A month ago, Etess, looking warm and comforting in a navy sweater, was all over local TV in a commercial talking up his company’s commitment to Palmer and the benefits a casino would bring to the town. But on Election Day, Palmer rejected the casino by a close margin. While Mohegan Sun went through the process of requesting a recount—it lost that, too—the company, as if unwilling to play the role of the jilted lover who can’t take a hint, was already casting around for a new main squeeze before the last ballot was recounted. Last week, a day after the recount, Mohegan announced its relationship with Suffolk Downs. (The racetrack had found itself with an empty dance card after it dumped its earlier casino partner, Caesars, over fears that the Mass. Gaming Commission wouldn’t bless the union because of alleged dalliance with Russian mobsters by a partner company.)

While it’s safe to say, based on the election results, that the majority of Palmer residents welcome the breakup, at least one entity is, like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, not going to be ignored: property owner Northeast Realty, Mohegan’s partner in the ill-fated Palmer project. Northeast has indicated that it could take legal action against Mohegan for violating an exclusivity agreement between the two parties, calling its pre-recount flirtation with Suffolk Downs a “breach of faith.” Northeast also suggested that Mohegan had been a less than satisfactory partner throughout the relationship, accusing it of “underperformance” and a slowness to commit by, for instance, dragging its feet in paying its application fee to the Gaming Commission.

The commission now has to contend with the fallout of this drama, including the question of whether a casino can even be built in Revere. Suffolk Downs’ original plan called for a venue straddling Revere and East Boston. After East Boston voters rejected the project, though, Suffolk Downs began maneuvering to shift the entire casino into Revere.

Meanwhile, the increasingly complicated mess—not to mention the growing number of communities that have rejected casino proposals—makes one wonder whether Massachusetts really ought to continue its flirtation with expanded gambling, or whether, when it comes to casinos, it ought to consider a vow of celibacy.•

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