Mr. Wynn Comes to Everett
It was long assumed that Suffolk Downs had the inside track on the single casino license Massachusetts will issue in the Boston area. But that was before billionaire Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn’s whirlwind courtship with the blue-collar city of Everett and its mayor, Carlo DeMaria. Now the race between Wynn and Suffolk Downs is entering the home stretch…even if, as he tells us, Wynn doesn’t think there’s any competition.
In fact, throughout his nearly 50-year career, Wynn has been a visionary. From the moment the first neon light flickered on in the Nevada desert, casino operators had thought of their buildings as just four walls to hold slot machines. Wynn’s idea to turn them into palaces of opulent design and over-the-top amenities has been credited with revolutionizing Las Vegas. When he opened the Mirage in 1989, the unheard-of $630 million price tag was called reckless, but his bet paid off when gamblers flocked to the luxury resort. The $1.6 billion Bellagio repeated that success in 1998, and then, after MGM Grand launched a takeover of Wynn’s company and bought him out two years later, he started a new one. Wynn Resorts opened the $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas in 2005, adorning the Strip with its undulating bronze glass exterior. It’s since been joined by a sister resort next door, the Encore, and the Wynn Macao, in China. The 71-year-old Wynn is fond of pointing out how his buildings, heavy on glass and natural light, win top honors and accolades. And how 60 percent of his company’s revenue comes from non-gaming sources, such as hotel rooms, nightclubs, restaurants, and spas. Of course, for all the high-minded talk of choosing aesthetics over Las Vegas schlock, Wynn’s hotels are still subsidized by his take from the casino floor, where the costs are low and the margins are high. Even if downplayed, the slot machines remain vital.
Wynn leads me into the next room in his villa, where he keeps his drafting table. It’s here that he designed the Wynn Everett concept, which borrows heavily from another building he’s proposed for Philadelphia. Unveiled in March, the Everett plans call for a 551-room hotel tower featuring his signature “Wynn bronze” glass. At its base is the casino, with a long retail mall extending out from it, along with a lush indoor “winter garden” and an outdoor park on the Mystic waterfront. Greater Boston, Wynn tells me, “could use one real lulu of a hotel.” With a casino there to churn out a handsome profit, of course.
There is, however, no guarantee that he’ll ever get a shovel in the ground. When Massachusetts legalized casinos in November 2011, it split the state into three zones: west, southeast, and east, including Greater Boston. The state gaming commission is allowed to issue just one casino license for each region, and has encouraged multiple bidders to compete against one another. Final applications are due December 31, and the five-member commission’s decision on who wins each license is expected to be delivered around April 2014.
The presumed favorite to win the Boston license has long been the politically connected Suffolk Downs, which partnered in 2011 with Caesars Entertainment to create a proposal for a $1 billion project that includes a casino, 450 hotel rooms, restaurants, shops, and a renovated horse track. But that has not deterred Wynn, who for years has wanted in on Boston. Like many developers, he believes that the area’s wealth, tourism, and international appeal make it one of the last great untapped gambling markets in the country. He started looking here as far back as late 2007, when it first appeared that the state might legalize casinos. More recently, he poked around the Seaport with the developer Joe Fallon (Menino quashed that idea immediately, Wynn’s lobbyist says), before buddying up with Patriots owner Bob Kraft in late 2011 to pitch a casino beside Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. That bid—a direct challenge to Suffolk Downs—appeared to have a legitimate shot, but when town residents revolted five months later, electing anti-casino selectmen to oppose the project, Wynn had to go slouching back to Vegas. A developer named David Nunes was still out there with a proposal for a casino in Milford, but Gary Loveman, the Ceasars CEO, felt triumphant. In a Globe interview two months after Wynn’s retreat, Loveman dismissed Nunes’s suburban concept and said he doubted any other serious competitors would emerge in the region to challenge Suffolk Downs. “I think it’s unlikely [another bidder will surface] because the cost of now mounting a bid is substantial,” he told the paper. It all seemed in the bag.
DeMaria has long viewed the Monsanto site as key to Everett’s reinvention. It may be contaminated enough to grow you a third arm, but it also sits on prime waterfront property, just across the bridge from Boston. If he could just unlock that gateway, DeMaria has always believed, prosperity would filter up through the rest of the city.
In 2011, well before anyone in Everett had even said the word “casino,” DeMaria convened a task force to create a master plan for the area. Simply finding another industrial use for the site, or throwing down some big chain stores, as had been done on a neighboring lot, wouldn’t do. DeMaria wanted to take advantage of the waterfront and bring it to life. A variety of mixed-use development concepts were hashed out, but there was always one problem: the pollution. It was going to cost tens of millions of dollars to clean the site. No developer was about to make that sort of investment. And environmental grants and loans from the government tend to come a few hundred thousand dollars at a time—it would have taken years to cobble enough together. “For anything to happen substantially on that site in this area,” DeMaria said, “I knew that it would take decades.”
Then, DeMaria said, he got a call last year from Las Vegas Sands, the casino behemoth controlled by billionaire Dorchester native Sheldon Adelson, saying that the company was interested in the Monsanto site. (Sands, which has not been active in the Massachusetts market, declined to comment on DeMaria’s account.) Nothing came of it—but DeMaria got an idea.
Soon after, on November 8, 2012, the Herald ran a story with the headline “Everett in Talks with Hard Rock for Casino.” The story was overblown—today, DeMaria admits he never personally spoke with Hard Rock. But the mayor was hardly unhappy to see the idea of an Everett casino publicized so prominently. After all, a casino would be one of the few businesses lucrative enough to justify the developer paying millions in environmental cleanup. “We wanted to talk about it,” DeMaria said. “We wanted to see what the possibilities were.”
Sure enough, the article caught the attention of executives at Wynn, who despite being spurned in Foxboro, still had their eye on Massachusetts. They called Steve Tocco, the president and CEO of the Boston lobbying firm ML Strategies, which they’d hired to represent their interests locally. Tocco, in turn, reached out to DeMaria.
From there, things moved quickly. Wynn CFO Matt Maddox and general counsel Kim Sinatra traveled to Everett for a mid-November meeting at City Hall. “They put me on the phone with Mr. Wynn, who was on his plane flying over to Monte Carlo to meet the prince for lunch,” DeMaria recalled. He said Wynn told him that he’d been stung by the rejection in Foxboro and asked whether Everett would be more receptive. DeMaria replied that the people of Everett would surely give him a fair shake.
DeMaria, it’s safe to say, was already a Steve Wynn fan. “Steve Wynn is, to me, the premier hotel developer in the world,” DeMaria said in late August, a couple of weeks after the press conference, sitting in the Wynn office in Everett beside a model of the planned project. The mayor has family in Arizona, and for the past 20 years, he and his wife have made regular side trips to Vegas. “Usually we’d stay at the Bellagio,” he said. “Back before the Bellagio I think it was probably the MGM, but then when the Bellagio was built, it was the Bellagio. And the expansions have always been great. I mean, the employees are always good. Just the whole experience. ”
A couple of weeks after the preliminary meeting at City Hall, Wynn himself arrived for an official visit. A cavalcade of black SUVs rolled down Horizon Way—renamed a few years back from “Chemical Lane”—and onto the Monsanto site. Wynn wasn’t impressed. “Train tracks, tanks,” he recalled, “a bus station, industrial place.” As Wynn’s shoes crunched down on the gravel outside his car, a commuter-rail train rumbled by, blasting its whistle. Wynn was horrified, imagining trains keeping his hotel guests up at night and distracting them during the day. DeMaria’s staffers were also horrified, imagining that Wynn was about to get right back in his car and go home.
Once the train passed, though, Wynn refocused on the gorgeous view of the Boston skyline across the river. From there, all he saw was the potential. The building could be soundproofed to take care of the whistle, he figured, and arrangements could be made for it not to blow at certain hours. The unsightly industrial scenery could be covered up. “We berm and we landscape and now you walk along that property, you’ll think you’re in Central Park,” he explained. “You won’t see a thing.” A few weeks later, in December, Wynn bought an option on the Monsanto site.