Will it work? Glitzy casino opening on industrial waterfront

EVERETT, Mass. — A $28 million statue of Popeye by the artist Jeff Koons. Luxury, “European-style” water shuttles. Five-star hotel rooms starting at about $650 a night.

After months of turmoil and uncertainty, Wynn Resorts’ flamboyant Encore Boston Harbor casino opens June 23 just over the city line in Everett, Massachusetts.

The $2.6 billion gambling, hotel and entertainment complex brings Las Vegas opulence to the unlikeliest of places: a largely industrial waterfront home to a subway train repair yard, a water and sewer agency facility and a power plant.

Massachusetts leaders hope the resort and its curved, bronze-toned hotel tower — echoing the company’s distinctive properties in Vegas and Macau — transforms the city’s reputation as an industrial afterthought.

“We were ready for something like this,” Mayor Carlo DeMaria said last week, putting forth a vision of a thriving waterfront district of hotels, restaurants and shops. “Everett will no longer be that place where the scrap yards and the used car lots and the power plant are.”

Key to that revival, DeMaria and casino officials say, is the company’s nearly $70 million environmental cleanup of the 33-acre (13-hectare) former chemical plant land and its shoreline. A new 6-acre (2-hectare) park featuring a harbour walk and gardens will give the public access to the city’s waterfront for the first time in more than a century.

Wynn Resorts has also purchased a number of homes and businesses leading up to the casino’s grand entry and begun razing them, with promises of future redevelopment.

Casino officials have declined media requests to tour the property in recent months, opting instead to showcase it on a single preview on June 21.

Speaking at his offsite administrative office last week, Encore Boston Harbor President Robert DeSalvio highlighted the attractions the company hopes will make the casino stand out in an increasingly crowded Northeast market.

Much like the company’s other properties, Encore Boston Harbor will feature millions of dollars in original artwork.

A fanciful carousel sculpture made up of 83,000 flowers and 11,000 jewels will greet visitors at the casino entry. Murano glass chandeliers will dangle from the gambling floor ceiling. And Koons’ Popeye will stand sentry by the casino’s meeting rooms.

“At the end of the day, people want to come for an experience,” DeSalvio said. “Our team has spanned the globe to find very special touches. All of it creates a bespoke entertainment experience. It’s a place for people to come back to time and time again.”

With more than 8 million patrons expected to visit annually, DeSalvio also stressed the casino’s efforts to ease traffic snarls, a major concern for long-suffering Boston residents and commuters.

Everett isn’t on a subway line, but there will be free shuttles from nearby stations, a free local circulator bus through city neighbourhoods, and coach buses departing from locations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The casino has also invested in shuttles to ferry patrons from downtown Boston’s harbour front.

But residents — even those eagerly anticipating the casino’s opening — remain skeptical.

“It’s a nightmare now. I can’t see how it gets any better,” said Jake Mitchell, a lifelong Everett resident as he watched traffic crawl past the casino on a recent workday afternoon. “But I still can’t wait to check it out. I’ll just live there. I won’t come home anymore.”

Nearly all casinos that have opened in the Northeast in recent years — including Massachusetts’ MGM Springfield and Plainridge Park — have struggled to meet revenue projections, and Encore will likely be no different, said Paul DeBolle, a professor at Lasell College in Newton, Massachusetts, who has been tracking regional casino revenues.

He and other experts predict the property will pull in around $600 million in revenues from gambling, short of the more than $800 million the casino predicted in its first year. State lawmakers have taken a similarly conservative view, projecting it will generate about $540 million from gambling. The state will collect 25% of the casino’s gambling revenues.

“Wynn is clearly banking on their ability to attract Asian ‘whales’ and other wealthy gamblers from around the world,” said Clyde Barrow, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley who has long studied Northeast casinos. “But it doesn’t make sense to me why anyone would fly right over Las Vegas to visit Everett, Massachusetts.”

But Encore Boston Harbor might be better placed than others to meet its lofty revenue goals because it holds a “virtual monopoly” on the Boston-area as owner of the lone gambling license for the affluent and populous region, said Alex Bumazhny, an analyst with the ratings agency Fitch.

Rival MGM Springfield is an hour and a half away, Connecticut’s Indian casinos are nearly a two hours’ drive, and other casinos closer to Boston offer fewer amenities, he said.

The controversies that have recently marred the company also shouldn’t dim the casino’s prospects, Bumazhny said.

Casino regulators in Massachusetts and Nevada hit Wynn Resorts with $55 million in fines and other penalties after determining officials failed to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct against Steve Wynn, the company’s founder.

Wynn has denied the misconduct allegations but resigned as CEO last year. And the company, weeks before opening, negotiated to sell the Everett casino to MGM, but those talks ended amid public criticism.

DeSalvio said the company remains bullish on Everett.

“For us, we’ve never moved off our original projections,” he said. “People are going love the interior of the building, and when they walk out on that harbour walk and see what was done out there, I think they’ll agree this is a unique and special place.”

Philip Marcelo, The Associated Press

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