Coming Spring '15: Plainridge Park Casino

(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) By a 3-2 vote, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission Thursday voted to award the sole slots parlor license authorized by the 2011 casino law to the Plainridge Racecourse harness track in Plainville and its gambling operator Penn National.

What will be called Plainridge Park Casino beat out bids from Cordish Cos. in Leominster and Taunton-Raynham Park, the former greyhound track. Commissioners' debate turned on how much a slots parlor in Leominster could help the economically struggling north-central part of Massachusetts, versus the benefits of bringing in a solid gambling operator -- Penn National runs 26 casino and slots operations in 17 states and nations -- that would save Plainridge from closing and preserve scores of jobs there and at horse farms around the state.

The vote is subject to Penn National and Plainridge accepting a set of conditions on the license by 9:30 a.m. Friday. All indications were there were no surprises and nothing that would lead Penn to turn down the license. The Gaming Commission is then set to make the vote final Friday morning.

Penn National president Tim Wilmott said: "It's going to be a first-class gaming development with racing integrated with food and beverage facilities, a $225 million investment" including a Doug Flutie sports bar.

"I think the big winners today are the 120 employees currently working at Plainridge Park, whose jobs get saved by this," Wilmott said. "This decision today ensures that we're going to be offering live horse racing at Plainridge Park for many years to come." Penn has committed to 100 days of racing this coming year. A total of 76 percent of Plainville voters approved the slots parlor in a town vote last September.

Going back to the 2000s, one of the key motivations for bringing legalized gambling to Massachusetts was to recoup dollars being gambled at casinos and slots parlors in Connecticut and Rhode Island. On that front, Plainridge is just 12 miles from Twin Rivers Casino in Lincoln, R.I., and its location at Interstate 495 and Route 1 puts it right on the path of Boston-area gamblers headed to Rhode Island or Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

Commissioners Gayle Cameron, Bruce Stebbins, and Enrique Zuniga voted for Plainridge. But chairman Stephen P. Crosby and commissioner James McHugh voted for the Cordish Leominster plan, saying they thought it could do much more economic good there.

"Plainville is a perfectly legitimate choice -- a totally legitimate choice -- and a very safe choice," Crosby said. "I think it's a loss of an extraordinary upside opportunity, and I think it's a pity ...I have a tiny bit of a sick feeling that we're missing a big opportunity for an important part of the state that could have been something unique and something special."

Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella had no complaints about the Gaming Commission review and didn't see any reason for a lawsuit. "It's disappointing, but we'll regroup," Mazzarella said. "We have a lot of good land right off the highway, exactly where they were going to go." Cordish was going to use a Jungle Road parcel now occupied by a plastics company at the Route 117-Interstate 190-Route 2 interchange complex.

McHugh and Crosby stressed they will root for success for Plainridge Park. "Penn National's going to do a first-class job," McHugh said. "This is an exciting moment. We're doing it -- and we're doing it with a quality team and a quality operation and a quality plan."

Penn National and Plainridge will have to pay the state a $25 million licensing fee to the state within 30 days. It will then pay a 49 percent state tax on the profits from its planned 1,250-machine slots parlor.

John Ribeiro of Repeal the Casino Deal, which is seeking to get a referendum on the November ballot repealing the casino and slots law, criticized the Plainville slots vote. "The process for selecting casinos and slot parlors is no less lopsided, loaded with politics and the influence of deep casino pockets than the legislative process which made this debacle possible," Ribeiro said. "We’ve seen in Massachusetts, that when voters understand the negative culture that slot parlors and casinos bring, they readily reject their false hopes and empty promises."

With videographer Scott Wholley

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