Harness Racetrack Gets Nod For First Massachusetts Casino

Feb 28, 2014

A harness racing track has been chosen by Massachusetts gambling regulators as the site of the state’s first casino.  If all goes according to schedule, the casino that will have up to 1,250 slot machines, but no table games, will open just over a year from now.

       The Massachusetts Gaming Commission, in the most significant decision of its two years in existence, voted 3-2 on Thursday to offer a license to Penn National Gaming to operate a slot machine parlor at the Plainridge harness racetrack.  The track is in Plainville on the Rhode Island border.

       Penn agreed to accept certain technical conditions and was formally awarded the license Friday morning. Penn now owes the state a $25 million licensing fee.  The Pennsylvania-based company, which was once in the competition to build a full-blown resort casino in Springfield, will spend about $225 million to build the gambling facility at the racetrack.

      Commissioner Bruce Stebbins said the awarding of the license -- the first in Massachusetts under the 2011 expanded gaming law -- is both historic and exciting.

    " We are taking the next step in a long and lengthy process to introduce gaming into the Commonwealth in the right way and at a level of success we all hope to achieve."

      Commissioners who backed Plainville -- Stebbins, Enrique Zuniga, and Gayle Cameron -- cited Penn’s experience running 28 gaming facilities around the country and the prospect of preserving harness racing in Massachusetts.

        " Frankly, I value the racing. The ability to have racing continue in a full time capacity I saw as an important additional consideration here," said Cameron.

         Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby said  the failure by the commission to reach a unanimous decision in no way clouds the awarding of the state’s first gaming license.

       " Because it is important for people to know that we've got our differences of opinion, we air them in public and then we move forward."

       Crosby and Commissioner James McHugh supported a proposal by the Cordish Companies to build a slot machine parlor in Leominster. McHugh argued the north central part of the state was in greater need of the hundreds of jobs the gaming facility would create.

    McHugh and Crosby both supported the motion Friday to formally award the license to Penn National.

       Now that the lone slots parlor license authorized by state law has been awarded, the gaming commission will focus on developing destination resort-style casinos.  The commission is expected to award licenses in the western and eastern regions in May or June.

       MGM Resorts, which proposes an $800 million casino in downtown Springfield, is the only applicant for the license authorized for western Massachusetts.  The gaming commission has scheduled a public hearing on the MGM project for Monday March 3 at the West Springfield Middle School.

     Ted Steger of NoCasino Springfield said members of the anti-casino group will try to persuade the commissioners not to issue a casino license.

      "There are some very good economic, social, moral and economic justice issues why a casino is bad for Springfield.  They ( the gaming commission) have not heard this. They've been in a bubble speaking to the casinos. This is an opportunity for the citizens and an outside voice to get to the gaming commission."

      Steger and other anti-casino activists are pinning most of their hopes on getting a question on the November ballot that asks voters to repeal the 2011 gaming law.

       This was a good week for the fledgling gaming industry in Massachusetts.  Casino companies reversed a succession of defeats in local referenda when voters in Revere on Tuesday strongly endorsed a proposal by Mohegan Sun to build a $1.3 billion casino at the Suffolk Downs race track.

       That assures a competition between Mohegan and Wynn Resorts for a resort casino license in the greater Boston area.