High Stakes Assignment
Bruce Stebbins Relishes His Role with the State’s Gaming Commission
Bruce Stebbins doesn’t remember the exact wording of the letter from the search firm that came roughly 20 months ago and would eventually prompt an abrupt career course change and thrust him into the middle of the casino era in Massachusetts.
But he remembers the gist, and the key sentence or two that certainly caught his eye.
“It talked about how the firm was trying to find an individual or individuals to serve on the Massachusetts Gaming Commission,” he said. “I don’t recall whether it said ‘from Western Massachusetts,’ but it did say, ‘if you know of anyone, or if you yourself might have any interest, feel free to give us a call.’
“So I called them back,” continued Stebbins, who, at the time, was serving as business development administrator in Springfield. “And while I was really happy doing what I was doing for the city, I inquired a little more about the position and what it involved. I didn’t have any friend or colleague or someone I knew who I was going to recommend, but I just wanted to find out more about it. By the end of the phone call with the recruiter I’d made up my mind to send him my resume.”
Fast-forward just a few weeks (things were moving quickly because deadlines for filling the panel were looming) and he was being interviewed by the governor, attorney general, and treasurer — the three officials who would collectively decide who won this slot on the board — and eventually prevailed. Jump ahead another 18 months, and he and the other four members are closing in on some of the most anticipated decisions in recent state history, choices that will change the landscape of cities and regions, both literally and figuratively, and alter the fortunes of countless individuals and businesses.
At present, the commission is neck deep in the process of deciding the winner of the contest for the one slots parlor that was made part of the gaming legislation passed nearly two years ago. Three proposals are being reviewed, and a decision is due early next year, said Stebbins.
Concurrently, the board is also advancing the process of determining who will win up to three licenses for resort casinos; there are competitions being played out in the three designated regions for such licenses — the Boston area, Western Mass., and Southeastern Mass.
And while a decision is not due on those licenses until early next spring, the commission is already having a huge impact on the proceedings.
Indeed, when a suitability assessment by commission investigators raised questions about Caesars Entertainment, a partner in the bid to put a casino at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, the industry giant abruptly withdrew — at the behest of its partner — throwing the Boston area competition into something approaching chaos as a Nov. 5 referendum vote on the proposal looms and the Suffolk Downs team scrambles to find a new partner.
The startling turn of events prompted the Boston Globe to praise the commission for setting the bar high when it comes to the standards that casino companies will have to meet in the Bay State. And it also inspired Caesar’s President Gary Loveman to opine that the bar has been set too high.
“It’s going to be very difficult for sophisticated multi-jurisdictional operators to tolerate the environment this commission has created,” he told the press.
[/caption]When queried about the Suffolk Downs development and, in general, the height of that aforementioned bar, Stebbins, obviously choosing words carefully and sounding a lot like Bill Belichick at one of his press conferences, said, “this is what the statute was intended to do; we need to be as thorough as possible, and our investigators have to be diligent and follow up every lead. We want to impress upon people that we want operators who have great business practices to be the ones operating casinos in Massachusetts.”
And when asked if he and his fellow commission members are feeling the pressure that will certainly accompany the decisions to come, Stebbins smiled broadly, implied that ‘pressure’ was probably too strong a word, but nonetheless verified the enormity of the moment.
“All five of us acknowledge that because there’s a limited number of licenses, we understand that we have one shot to get this done right,” he said. “We’re also buffeted by the fact that over half the states in the U.S. have done this before and there is a great working relationship with other jurisdictions.”
For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Stebbins about everything from his experiences on the commission to date to the factors he believes will ultimately decide how the casino licenses are awarded, including the one for the Western Mass. region.
Playing His Cards Right
Stebbins isn’t the official Western Mass. representative on the gaming commission, but that’s how he’s generally regarded.
He’s the only member from this part of the state, and he acknowledges that a desire on the part of those assembling the panel to create geographic diversity probably aided his cause. As did a quest for political diversity — Stebbins is a Republican, and one of the stipulations for this commission, he said, was that there not be more than two members for any one political party. (He assumes there are two Democrats and two Republicans, but isn’t sure of the affiliation of the fifth member; “we don’t wear our politics on our sleeves.”)
And he believes his work history, which includes a number of roles in business and economic development, might have turned some heads.
Indeed, Stebbins’ resume includes everything from a stint in the White House — as associate director of Political Affairs while George Bush the elder was in office — to two terms as a Springfield city councilor; from a short run as director of the Mass. Office of Business Development to a decade-long tenure as senior regional manager of the National Association of Manufacturers.
He said the experience gained at these various stops has certainly helped him with his current workload, but that his time with the gaming commission has also helped him grow professionally and sharpen existing skills sets.
“I think there are certainly skills and experiences I’m having that will help round me out as a professional and as an executive,” said Stebbins, who repeatedly compared his work on the commission — and its role in bringing the gaming industry to Massachusetts — to getting a startup business off the ground.
“I was intrigued by two things,” he said, when recalling what prompted this latest line on his resume. “Part of it was setting something up from the ground floor, albeit a government, regulatory agency. Taking something and building it from a piece of legislation — I thought that was a unique opportunity considering my years in public service. I’d never really had the opportunity to do that before; it was enticing.
“It’s not completely akin to a small business, because we came with an operating budget already in hand from the Legislature,” he continued, “but similar to a small company, we were building a way to do business, recruiting and building a team, and coming up with a mission statement, just like any business does, while at the same time learning about a business that was completely new to Massachusetts.
“The other intriguing part of this was the economic aspect,” he went on. “We’re introducing a whole new industry to Massachusetts and really focusing on the priorities of the statute, which are the job creation piece in difficult economic times, and the impact on tourism and small business — this was right up my alley when it came to my background and experiences.”
He said he took on the assignment expecting that there would be large amounts of travel and reading, and there have been both; he commutes to Boston four days a week, spending Friday in Western Mass., and the three slot parlor applications alone account for roughly 20,000 pages of material, although he acknowledged quickly that he doesn’t have to consume all of that.
Beyond that, he anticipated that it would be a learning experience on a number of levels, and it has been that as well.
When asked to elaborate on what he has learned, Stebbins listed everything from insight into just how competitive the gaming industry is, to lessons learned from the experiences of other jurisdictions, such as Atlantic City.
“New Jersey felt that by introducing casino gaming in an effort to revive Atlantic City there would instantly be jobs and opportunities for all the people living in that city,” he noted. “But the casinos came in, the people living in Atlantic City didn’t have the skills and the basic training assistance, and they missed out on the job opportunities that were created, and that’s why Atlantic City languished and some would say it continues to languish. It missed out on some opportunities.”
Odds and Ends
When asked if the decisions regarding the casino licenses were matters of objective or subjective analysis, Stebbins said there is certainly far more of the former, but there is certainly some of the latter.
Elaborating, he noted that proposals will be weighed in five categories — financial, building and site design, mitigation, economic development, and something he called ‘general overview of the project,’ and then described as the “wow factor.”
It is in that last category where there is some subjectivity, he told BusinessWest, adding that with the other four, analysis generally comes down to hard numbers, and lots of them.
“A good percentage of the information is very objective — ‘tell us the number of people you’re hiring,’ ‘show us the plans you intend to work with,’ ‘what’s your debt-to-equity ratio?,’ ‘what are your plans for implementing LEED gold design into your building?, ‘what are your plans for mitigating the impact on the lottery?,’” he explained, noting that for each of the five categories he mentioned applicants are given one of four ratings.
These are ‘insufficient,’ ‘sufficient,’ ‘exceeds expectations,’ and ‘outstanding,’ he went on, adding these ratings, as well as the answers to the 230 questions applicants must answer will be discussed in a public meeting before votes are taken on the specific licenses, including the one for what’s known as Region 2, Western Massachusetts.
When asked what may decide that competition, which will likely be an urban versus suburban matchup featuring MGM Springfield and Mohegan Sun Massachusetts in Palmer (a vote on the host-community agreement in that latter community is set for Nov. 5), Stebbins said it, like the others, will be determined by the tenets of the legislation — and perhaps by that ‘wow factor.’
“The purpose of the statute was to generate revenue for the Commonwealth and create jobs,” he explained. “A lot of the evaluation questions address the other requirements that were put in the statute.
“The general overview portion of this, the ‘wow factor,’ might well be more of a subjective answer,” he continued. “But backing all this up is that we want to know what these players’ track records are in other jurisdictions; have they met their promises? Have they done what they said they were going to do? How have those other facilities operated?”
Meanwhile, the commission will attempt to emulate the best practices of other jurisdictions and learn from what has gone right — and wrong — in other states, he went on.
“We’re all happy to share information and regulations,” he said of those other states. “They’ve been great to talk to; they’re candid and honest — they’ll say ‘we tried to do it this way and didn’t really work out that well. There are great opportunities to build on the best practices of other jurisdictions.”
While the pending decisions on the licenses are certainly the most pressing item facing the commission, its work certainly won’t end there, he told BusinessWest, adding there will be considerable regulatory work to finish, issues with the licensing process, and monitoring the progress of those companies who win the regional competitions.
“It shifts into a regulatory and oversight function,”he said, “but there will be a lot of important work to do.”
The Bottom Line
Stebbins said he’s just over half-way through a term that will last three years. It is possible that he will be awarded another, longer term and perhaps even two (commissioners can serve up to 10 years), but he acknowledged that there will be different people serving as governor and attorney general by then, and they may have some other ideas.
At the moment though, he isn’t focused on the future, but rather the present, and his large role in something that could only be described as historic.
Looking back on that letter from the recruiter that started him down this road, he said that what appealed to him initially — a chance to bring a new industry into Massachusetts and be part of a huge economic development initiative — continues to fuel his imagination today.
If his career gambit was a roll of the dice, he believes he’s thrown a 7.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]