By Elizabeth Barber
BOSTON (Reuters) - Massachusetts will award Las Vegas developer MGM Resorts International the state's first license to operate a gambling casino, pending a challenge by anti-gambling activists, officials said on Friday.
MGM wants to build an $800 million casino in Springfield, 90 miles (145 km) west of Boston, but has faced opposition from activists who are seeking to repeal the New England state's 2011 law legalizing casino gambling.
Under the gambling law, Massachusetts can award three casino licenses, including one in the west that includes Springfield, one in the east region that includes Boston, and one in the southeast that includes the Cape Cod beach area.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission's unanimously voted on Friday to give MGM the license for western Massachusetts, capping a two-year vetting process that has seen several other proposed projects fail.
If the effort to repeal Massachusetts' gambling law fails, MGM will need to pay $85 million to the state to finalize the license, according to the deal worked out between MGM and the Gaming Commission.
A group called "Repeal the Casino Deal" turned in enough signatures to trigger a referendum on the law, but the state Supreme Judicial Court is reviewing a constitutional challenge to the ballot measure from state Attorney General Martha Coakley. The court is expected to decide in July.
James Murren, CEO of MGM, said he was optimistic that the project would still go forward. "I think the odds are very high," he said, at a press conference on Friday. "Not only would I bet on it. I have."
Gambling opponents say they are concerned about traffic and crime that could come with casinos, though developers and advocates say the projects could provide a much-needed shot in the arm to the economy in parts of the state.
Casino gambling has had mixed success in New England.
Connecticut has two large casinos owned by Indian tribes, Maine has two small casinos, and Rhode Island has two slot machine parlors. But New Hampshire state legislators last year rejected a bill that would have allowed construction of a casino that had strong support from Governor Maggie Hassan.
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Sandra Maler)