The Massachusetts Casino Wars

After what has felt like a decade-long process—starting with Governor Deval Patrick’s bold initiative to bring casinos to Massachusetts, followed by the passage of comprehensive gaming legislation, formation of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and passage, and failure, of local referenda on the issue—we find ourselves… back at the starting line. In the November election voters will decide (we think) the issue of whether casinos will exist in Massachusetts going forward.

What does this have to do with communications? It turns out— lots. It is always fascinating to observe how an issue emerges, how people begin to take a position on an issue and, as it morphs and gets vetted by the press and public, opinion begins to shift like beach sand.

This may be a case where a new variation of the philosophy “all politics is local” has been born. When the bill was passed, applicants scrambled for available land and receptive communities. With legislation clearing the way for the introduction of casinos in three regions of the Commonwealth, communications were aimed at voters only in those potential host communities. It didn’t matter that statewide polling consistently showed a large plurality in favor of casinos—that was simply unnecessary icing on the cake.

Then something unforeseen began to unfold. Even voters in communities with no proposed casino in their backyard started to pay attention to the daily buzz on casinos. How could they not? The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Springfield Republican, Boston Business Journal, just about every television news outlet and New England Cable News started reporting on the casino issue, just about every day.

A funny thing happens to people when they are exposed to a compelling story like this—they start to form, or change, their position. So let’s look at a couple of key things that have made this once runaway competition a horserace (sorry for the pun).

Casinos were proposed in areas that didn’t make a lot of sense to people—like the venerable Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield. The Big E is universally revered and in the 10 years I served as creative director for the fair, I learned just how woven into the fabric of our culture it is. Voters in West Springfield made that eminently clear by voting the casino down by a large margin.

As the communications agency for Northeast Realty, owner of the 152-acre tract of land in Palmer off the Mass Turnpike, I had a front row seat on Mohegan Sun’s plans for a casino there. Mohegan would have preferred there was no gaming in Massachusetts at all in order to protect their flagship casino in Connecticut, which has been suffering in recent years. But with legislation opening the door in a state from which they draw millions of customers, they ventured in.

Somehow, Mohegan took a consistent 20-point lead in polling over the past two years and lost a nail-biter—by less than one percentage point. Some of that was just bad communications or lack of communications. Mohegan presented its casino renderings—affectionately called by some opponents “the spaceship” because it looked like one and because it landed in front of voters with no input from the local community. Mohegan also promoted one of the traffic options being a five-lane access road— communicating this proudly on the front of mailers to residents living in a two-lane rural community. Not terribly smart.

Their quick exit to Boston and Suffolk Downs, before the Palmer referendum recount was even conducted, was revealing to many in the Commonwealth about the new casino culture—run fast to wherever the money is or could be.

In Boston, Ceasars was ruled ineligible, and subsequently sued the Gaming Commission, and, in the same region, Foxwoods was soundly defeated in Milford. These events didn’t just occur in the communities most interested. Lots of people were paying attention in surrounding communities and throughout the state.

In Springfield, MGM probably presented the most cogent narrative in the state—repairing and revitalizing a city and a neighborhood ravaged by the swath of the 2011 tornado. But even here, critics from neighboring communities were able to express their opposition for all to hear.

This all gave rise to local opposition groups, who started talking to one another and, poof— a ballot initiative was born.

And by now all of this behavior, good and bad, has led us to the statewide vote on casinos. Whatever the outcome, the people will prevail. Now it is up to the casino companies and their allies—such as labor and political leaders in affected communities like Springfield—to develop a singular coordinated message, because the people are, and have been, paying attention.

Photograph of Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins

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