By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) — On June 16, Suffolk Downs will see its final horse race. Far less certain is the future of the Encore casino in Everett, due to open the following week.

And the juxtaposition of those two events provides some perspective on the spectacular failure of the Massachusetts state government to wisely oversee the rollout of casino gambling here.

In the eight years since it was created by a new state law legalizing casinos, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) has, in a drawn-out process that – in the name of care and prudence – missed the chance to capitalize on the casino boom before it is eroded by a glut of competition:

  • Placed the lone slot-parlor license in an awkward location where the proprietor is struggling;
  • Failed to award the southeast region casino license, in the process by-passing an opportunity in Brockton that would have satisfied a key casino-law mandate, promoting economic development in an impoverished area;
  • Thrown out a legitimate competitor, Caesars Entertainment, over a remote connection to an unsavory character, while bending over backward to accommodate the interests of Steve Wynn, despite the sketchy background of the original Everett landowner;
  • Chosen a Western Massachusetts casino site in Springfield with myriad problems, including a crime-plagued downtown location and close proximity to Connecticut competition;
  • Shunned a well-respected local ownership group partnering with Suffolk Down in favor of Wynn’s Everett bid;
  • Deployed a high-priced, “crack” investigative team that failed to uncover Wynn’s personal and corporate improprieties, which were subsequently unearthed by a couple of Wall Street Journal reporters.

And now, with the windfall of Everett’s opening at hand, the MGC’s belated effort to remediate its oversight failures has prompted at least the threat of a statewide casino ownership shuffle that promises to be chaotic at best.

No wonder Gov. Charlie Baker, who inherited the mess but now has his hand-picked ally in charge, responds to questions about the debacle by setting a land speed record for running in the opposite direction.

It’s possible the talk of Wynn Resorts selling the Encore monolith in Everett to MGM (thus clouding the future of the Springfield facility, which MGM owns but would have to unload to comply with the state’s one-casino-only rule) is just talk. But the industry experts we talk with are unsurprised.

They say the MGC’s unprecedented demand as part of the decision to let Encore keep its Everett license to require that Wynn accept their appointment of an independent monitor to essentially dictate casino practices for at least the next three years is viewed by the company as unacceptable. And if they make the withdrawal of that demand, a condition of opening in Everett, how on earth – as a practical political matter – can the MGC stand firm?

Make no mistake – when Everett does open, it will be a license to print money for some time. How long depends on a range of factors – including the reaction of regional competitors (in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Springfield) at risk of being cannibalized by Everett and the eventual onset of online gambling.

The jobs and fresh revenue generated by Plainridge, Springfield and Everett are most welcome, no doubt about it. But if you’re looking for a textbook case of confused, inept government regulation leading to uncertainty and lost opportunities, this is it.

Jon Keller

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