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Gaming board head says casinos coming

GREENFIELD — The head of the state Gaming Commission told a local gathering of business leaders Friday that although the closest potential casino may be developed in Springfield, they should seize the opportunity to get involved in the lengthy process of setting parameters for the licensing and siting.

“People need to be aggressive and reach out,” Stephen Crosby, chair of the new five-member commission said after outlining its activities for the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

The commission, which has begun doing in-depth background checks on potential applicants — including four thus far in western Massachusetts — is also seeking public comments through Nov. 27 on policy questions for review of prospective licensees. Those questions — about 50 so far — address “how can we minimize negative consequences and maximize positive consequences” of the gaming industry approved by the Legislature last year, said Crosby.

Details of the public comment process, as well as live streaming of all commission meetings are on the website listed at the end of this article.

“I was not a particularly big enthusiast of gambling, but I’m not interested in the debate anymore about whether we’re going to have it or not. We’re going to have it. We need to figure out how to do it well.”

Among the questions is how the commission will define “surrounding communities” whose approval will be among those required for license approval and how to set the required minimum percentage of jobs that would have to be filled by local residents.

Development of the three likely casinos — one each in western, eastern and southeastern parts of the state — “is going to have consequences on everybody in the commonwealth,” Crosby said, in terms of job generation and economic development, revenue for the state, and culture, “for good and for ill.”

The commission, which has a $7.5 million operating budget borrowed from the state’s rainy day fund, has as its first charge from the Legislature ensuring public confidence in the integrity of the gaming licensing process. “The strict oversight of all gaming establishments through a rigorous regulatory scheme is the paramount policy objective of this chapter.” Crosby, who was founding dean of the UMass Boston Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, said the slow pacing of a commission that doesn’t expect to issue its first licenses for another 12 to 15 months is deliberate for Massachusetts to “get it right” when it comes to starting up a new, potentially disruptive industry.

Although some of the players have announced plans — including MGM, Ameristar, Seminole Hard Rock Entertainment and Penn National Gaming have announced plans for a casino in Springfield — Crosby said it will take another year before background checks are completed, after which developers will begin to unveil specifics of their proposals and begin negotiating agreements with the communities, subject to a local referendum.

“It’s completely up to the community to make the decisions about whether they want a facility, and to negotiate in the first instance the conditions of that facility,” he said, noting that the legislation provides for local control, including signed agreements with all surrounding communities “materially affected by that facility.”

Applicants that have received approval at the local level probably won’t begin to approach the state Gaming Commission for its approval until late 2013, and it has up to four months to approve those proposals.

Crosby said that beyond requiring developers to design a “very aggressive, best possible plan” for dealing with problem gaming, the casino legislation gave the commission a $5 million annual fund to research and develop programs to deal with those kinds of addictions.

The commission is working with regional economic development agencies and planning agencies, such as the Pioneer Valley Regional Planning Commission, on how to define “surrounding communities,” said Crosby after his formal talk. It’s also hired an ombudsman to help those agencies and communities to work through issues, and it may even fund regional planning agencies to help communities figure out how to mitigate consequences from the multimillion-dollar developments.

Among the criteria the commission will use in allowing proposals and regulating their projects, he said, will be to promote local, small businesses in the tourism industry by “being very aggressive … in telling the casino operators, with the bidders that they will have to persuade us that they’ve learned how to cooperate with local businesses and the tourism industry. … That’s easier said than done.”

Rather than allowing developers to “siphon off” the expected influx of tourism dollars so that resort visitors never leave the casino, “There are restaurants, the are entertainment venues, there’s Historic Deerfield … They need to know we have somehow kind of managed the relationships with the casinos so that it enhances them. We are encouraging the casinos to enhance the relationship with the local communities, the local tourism industry and so forth.”

Crosby told the gathering, “we are very conscious of the fact that we have one chance to get this right. Many, if not most, jurisdictions have gotten in some kinds of trouble by moving too quickly, by letting politics interfere in the process, by bringing in operators who are not capable of doing the job, by letting operators overbuild … any number of mistakes you can make that crush public confidence in the process and in the operation. If we screw it up in the outset, it will be a hard, hard slog to win back public confidence.”

Getting it right means creating 8,000 to 10,000 construction jobs and an equal number of permanent jobs — for which the gaming commission hopes to establish a training program in conjunction with community colleges and regional training groups to assure the skilled work force allows for a negotiated percentage of local employment — and $300-500 million additional revenues to the state.

Among the issues the commission is looking into controlling is what kind of entertainment contract limits developers could set that could compete with other cultural venues around the state, Crosby said.

Although he doesn’t expect casino developers to reach out to communities as far away as Franklin County to get their input on proposed resorts, Crosby said after the event, “Communities can reach out to them. And the tourism industry, the restaurant industry, the entertainment industry, the local job development people, local organizations like the chamber of commerce … all of them are protected in the legislation. So everybody can go to the developer and say, ‘Hey, We’re up in Greenfield, we’ve got the following issues, we want this to be on your radar screen, and if it isn’t on your radar screen, we’re going to talk to the commission about it when the public hearings come.’

“I think people need to be aggressive, need to reach out,” Crosby said. “The mandate is in the law to protect all these kind of considerations, but local folks have to take the initiative themselves, go to the developer and say, ‘We need to talk.’”

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