• Are there enough gamblers to keep Bay State casinos in business?

    By: Bob Dumas

    Updated:

    BOSTON - The first casino in the Boston area is set to begin operations on June 23 when the Encore Boston Harbor plans to open its doors.

    At $2.6 billion, the Everett casino is the largest single-phase private development in Massachusetts' history.

    The facility is expected to draw eight million visitors a year and will employ 5,000 workers.

    Many on Beacon Hill are already banking on the revenue the gaming industry will generate.

    The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates the state will reap close to $300 million in FY2020.

    The Encore Boston Harbor is one of many gaming facilities that have now popped up all over the Northeast in recent years. There is some concern the market might be reaching a saturation point.

    "There's a fixed amount of discretionary income that people use for gaming," said Paul Debole, a professor at Lasell College who specializes in the gaming industry.

    In the last eight months, business has been particularly robust at the Rose Pizzeria and Restaurant in Springfield, which sits right next to the new MGM Springfield Casino.

    "We used to have a lull in the day, say from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., where the restaurant would be pretty empty. Now it's just busy from the minute we open the door at 11 in the morning until 10 at night," owner Rita Caputo-Capua said.

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    A new kitchen is under construction and other projects have also expanded the restaurant's capacity.

    "We've added 25 seats around our bar. We have 40 seats and high tops and we added another banquet room," added Caputo-Capua.

    MGM Springfield, the state's first full-fledged casino, has drawn close to three million visitors since it opened last August. President and CEO Mike Mathis says they're still assessing their business trends.

    "We feel like the table game business, the non-gaming and the hotel and the food and beverage are at, or exceeding, projections," Mathis said. "The slot business is a little more sluggish than we expected."

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    MGM Springfield's core customers come from all along Route 91, down through Hartford, according to Mathis. The casino has placed advertising on Fenway's Green Monster as it makes a pitch to Bostonians as well. There is also daily bus service out of South Station.

    As the Encore Boston Harbor comes online, Mathis says he will be watching to see how it impacts business in Springfield.

    "It's going to be a formidable competitor, but we're already in a market with really strong competitors and we're monitoring it, and I think for us, there's plenty of market," said Mathis. 

    One complication is a potential change in how Massachusetts grants casino licenses.

    The original legislation created three zones for casinos in the state, with MGM and Encore taking up two. There is still one remaining in the southeastern part of the state, but now there is a proposal in the state senate to add a fourth zone in Worcester County.

    "I think that would be a mistake," said Mathis. "Between western Massachusetts and the eastern region, the Boston license, I think that's enough market in that area for us to be able to satisfy."

    There is one other wildcard at play in Massachusetts: whether or not a tribal casino will ever operate in the state.

    Overexpansion also concerned Debole, the professor from Lasell College. He believes there's enough difference and distance between MGM and Encore for both to thrive, but that anything more could be a bust.

    "The thing that's complicated about Massachusetts is they came to the game late and really the legislature had to become experts in gaming legislation almost overnight," Debole said.

    Back in Springfield, Caputo-Capua seems pretty happy with how this is playing out so far.

    "The casino has really allowed the city to flourish again, and we've been lucky enough to flourish with it," she said. 

    MORE: Finishing touches - plus $35M fine - all that's left for Encore Boston Harbor

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