By Scott Malone
BOSTON, Dec 5 (Reuters) - The chief executive of MGM Resorts International expressed confidence on Thursday that his plan to develop a gambling casino in western Massachusetts would win regulatory approval despite opposition by activists who oppose casinos in the state.
Massachusetts has yet to approve a casino proposal, more than two years since Governor Deval Patrick signed a law allowing for three to be built in the state. Voters in several cities and towns have rejected proposed developments.
MGM has proposed a casino hotel complex in Springfield, a city about 90 miles (145 km) west of Boston, and its plan is up for a suitability review before the state gaming commission on Monday.
"I have every reason to expect that we will be found suitable," said James Murren, chief executive of MGM. "But as I said, it's out of my hands."
Murren and Springfield officials have touted the development as a needed shot in the arm to the economy of Massachusetts' third-largest city, already home to a Six Flags theme park and the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Voters have approved the proposed development in Springfield, where one in four residents lives below the poverty line, more than double the state average. It still needs the blessing of the Massachusetts Gambling Commission, which intends to award the licenses for resort casinos in April.
An opposition group called Repeal the Casino Deal is pushing for a statewide referendum in 2014 to strike down the casino bill. The group recently turned in enough signatures to state officials to earn their measure a place on the ballot next year. But a court is reviewing a constitutional challenge to the ballot measure from state Attorney General Martha Coakley.
"When you get the facts about what casino gambling brings to a community, people don't want to live near them," said John Ribeiro, chairman of the opposition group. "Sure, let's take a trip to Vegas, but don't put Vegas in our backyard."
TRAFFIC AND CRIME
Ribeiro said casinos would create new costs for state and local governments in the form of increased traffic and crime, while diverting spending from other area tourist attractions.
Murren, who spoke to reporters after addressing the Boston College Chief Executives' Club, said his development would create 2,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent positions when complete.
"If a company puts over $700 million into a city, as I intend to do, it's probably going to be pretty good for that city," Murren said.
Casino gambling has had mixed success in New England. Connecticut has two large casinos owned by Indian tribes, the first of which opened almost 30 years ago. The growth of those facilities prompted Maine to allow two small casinos, and Rhode Island has two slot machine parlors.
But New Hampshire state legislators in May rejected a bill that would have allowed construction of a casino that had strong support from Governor Maggie Hassan, who said it would boost state revenue without the need for a tax hike.
The 2011 Massachusetts law legalizing casino gambling carved the state up into three regions: the east, including Boston; the southeast including the Cape Cod beach area, and the more rural west, where Springfield is the main city.
Proposed casino projects have run into local opposition in many Massachusetts communities. Voters in East Boston last month rejected a proposal to build a $1 billion casino backed by Caesars Entertainment Corp on the site of a horseracing track, and a referendum in Palmer, Massachusetts, defeated a proposed casino that would have been in contention with MGM for the western Massachusetts license.
Another project backed by Wynn Resorts Ltd is seeking approval for a casino just outside Boston.