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Holyoke is back in Massachusetts casino mix

By Brian Hallenbeck

Publication: The Day

Published November 27. 2012 4:00AM   Updated November 27. 2012 4:53PM
Waterford Group is hoping to run proposed project

Holyoke, a small city that dropped out of the western Massachusetts casino sweepstakes last year, re-entered the fray Monday when its 23-year-old mayor announced he's considering a proposal for a site at Mountain Park, an outdoor concert venue on Mount Tom.

The Waterford Group, the Waterford-based company specializing in hotel and gaming projects - and with previous involvement in the Mohegan Sun and Twin River casinos - hopes to operate the proposed facility, Len Wolman, the group's chairman and chief executive officer, confirmed in an email.

"We have been in negotiations with Eric Suher and city officials in Holyoke on a casino proposal," Wolman said. "We look forward to continuing those conversations and hope to finalize the details on this exciting project. We will provide further information as it becomes available."

Suher, a Holyoke native who owns the Northampton, Mass.-based Iron Horse Entertainment Group and other companies, has proposed a casino project that would include a 350-room hotel, a convention facility, an indoor/outdoor amphitheater and restaurants.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who took an anti-casino stance in winning election in 2011, acknowledged late last week that he had altered his position. At Monday's City Hall press conference, he said his intention was "to inform the people of Holyoke of my shift in strategy before any advanced discussions or negotiations take place."

Morse, who reportedly was heckled as he spoke, said Holyoke "cannot insulate itself from the economic realities of the surrounding region," noting that a downtown Springfield casino would have a "severe impact" on Holyoke.

"I have thus come to the conclusion that in order to mitigate the effects of having a casino in western Massachusetts, it is not enough to oppose one in our boundaries," he said.

Three casino projects - all proposed by major players in the gaming industry - have been proposed for Springfield, while the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which operates Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, plans to pursue a project in Palmer, a town less than 20 miles east of Springfield.

In 2011, Hard Rock International, another big name in gaming, announced it was involved in a Holyoke casino plan, which it later abandoned.

Legislation passed a year ago authorizes the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to issue one resort casino license for western Massachusetts. Licenses can also be awarded for casinos in eastern and southeastern Massachusetts.

Massachusetts casinos are expected to have a significant impact on business at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino in southeastern Connecticut as well as at Twin River in Lincoln, R.I.

In the 1990s, the Waterford Group's gaming division joined with Kerzner International to develop, build and operate Mohegan Sun. In a 1998 agreement with the Mohegan Tribe, which owns the casino, the partnership relinquished management of the casino earlier than scheduled in exchange for 5 percent of its gross revenues over a 15-year period. The period ends Dec. 31, 2014.

Mohegan Sun's annual relinquishment payments to the Waterford/Kerzner partnership are in the tens of millions of dollars.

In 2004, Waterford Gaming partnered with Kerzner International and Starwood Capital Group to form BLB Investors, which bought a greyhound track in Lincoln, R.I., and turned it into Twin River, a racetrack casino. BLB investors filed for bankruptcy in 2009, and new owners took control of the facility in a court-approved reorganization.

Twin River, now preparing to introduce table games, is to become a full-fledged casino.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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