BOSTON — Suffolk Downs, a famed but fading thoroughbred racetrack in the neighborhood of East Boston, had dreams of a major revitalization, and when the state approved casinos in 2011, it partnered with the Caesars Entertainment Corporation to apply for the sole casino license that would be awarded in the greater Boston. They planned a $1 billion destination resort casino that would be one of the biggest in the Western Hemisphere, a curved, glassy mega-palace that might look more at home in Miami Beach than in this gritty neighborhood hard by Logan International Airport.
Suffolk Downs needed voter approval before it could advance to the next stage for the license and invested more than $2 million in a campaign for a yes vote on a referendum on Tuesday’s ballot.
But in mid-October, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, reputed to be one of the toughest in the country, pulled the plug on Caesars, saying it was unsuitable for doing business in the state. Suffolk Downs asked Caesars to withdraw, and it did.
Now, Suffolk Downs is suddenly scrambling to find a new partner. And the election is going ahead because the ballots have already been printed — with Caesars’ name on them.
Suffolk Downs says Caesars’ exit does not change anything as far as voters go. But opponents say that it changes everything and that it is absurd for voters to be passing judgment on something that does not exist.
“At a certain point, you can’t cancel a vote,” said Pamela Wilmot, the executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a watchdog group, which has not taken a position on the casino. “But this throws the whole thing into doubt, with voters not really knowing what they’re voting for.”
If the referendum passes, she said, opponents will probably challenge it in court. “Voter intent will be difficult to ascertain, given the situation,” she said.
As confusing as this might be for voters, Suffolk needs their approval before it can compete against two potent rivals that are also seeking the license for a casino to be built in the untapped, lucrative Eastern Massachusetts market. At stake is billions of dollars in anticipated revenue, some of which will be shared with the host community and the state.
One rival is Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas casino mogul and chief executive of Wynn Resorts Ltd., who has proposed a $1.2 billion resort casino on the Mystic River waterfront, a few miles west in the town of Everett. Residents there have approved his project with 86.5 percent of the vote.
Another competitor is Foxwoods, which is planning a $1 billion casino in the suburban town of Milford, about 40 miles southwest of Boston. Milford will vote on the Foxwoods plan on Nov. 19.
Once they have local approval, the casinos must submit their final applications to the state by Dec. 31. The gambling commission is to award the license by spring.
Suffolk Downs was believed to have the edge because of its strong political backing, most notably from Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston. The track, where the Beatles played in 1966, is also a sentimental favorite since it has been here almost 80 years. Pro-casino organizers are trading on that nostalgic connection: their green and yellow signs say “Vote ‘yes’ for Suffolk Downs.” In tiny letters is the Caesars logo, but the word “casino” does not appear.
But the gambling commission threw cold water on Caesars’ participation. In a lengthy report, it cited Caesars’ $24 billion debt, alleged ties of an associate to organized crime in Russia and a scandal involving a high-roller named Terrance Watanabe, who racked up millions of dollars in unpaid debt at Caesars casinos and in turn claimed that the company encouraged him to gamble while he was intoxicated.
Suffolk Downs officials said they were blindsided by the report. Caesars said it was equally surprised. On its way out, the company, which operates more than 50 other casinos across the world, said the Massachusetts standards for suitability were “arbitrary, unreasonable and inconsistent with those that exist in every other gaming jurisdiction.”
The commission did deem Suffolk Downs suitable for a casino. As track officials seek a new partner, they have sought to minimize any sense of disruption. Chip Tuttle, the chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs, said the ballot referendum was merely a land use question for voters. He said the track would acquire a new partner quickly and hold it to the same standards agreed to by Caesars.