A Penn National Gaming proposal at Plainridge Racecourse grabbed a nominal advantage on the opening day of the state gambling commission’s deliberations on the award of a slot parlor license.
The commission plans to deliberate three more days this week and by Friday will award its first license, more than two years after Massachusetts legalized Las Vegas-style casino gambling.
Penn’s plan to renovate and expand the Plainville harness racing track earned the highest score in the commission’s in-depth assessment of each project’s financial strength, and Penn tied with a proposal by Cordish Cos. for the highest rating in a second category covered Tuesday: building and site design.
The Cordish proposal, planned for Leominster, finished just behind Penn in financial strength.
The final competitor, Raynham Park, was third in both categories, though no proposal has been eliminated, and the commission’s financial analysis suggests each project would generate roughly the same amount of gambling revenue and state taxes.
“This is not by any means the end of the line for anybody,” said Commissioner James McHugh, who led the commission’s review of building and site design. He presented his findings Tuesday.
Each of the five commissioners was assigned a particular aspect of the proposals to study. They have been huddling with specialists for months, reviewing maps, marketing plans, and thousands of other documents.
The evaluation continues Wednesday morning, when the panel will release its findings in at least two more categories: economic development and mitigation. The final category, an overview of each development proposal, is expected late Wednesday or Thursday.
How much weight the commission will give to each category remains to be seen. By Thursday, the five commissioners will begin to discuss, in open session, what each member sees as the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal.
The weight they give to each category will evolve as they work toward consensus. The commission has had very few split votes in the two years since it was formed, and the members will try to be unanimous on their most important decision to date.
The state’s expanded gambling law, passed in 2011, authorized as many as three resort-style casinos and one slot parlor permitted to have 1,250 slot machines. Each of the slot applicants would also offer restaurants and other amenities.
In the category of building and site design, Cordish’s Leominster project and Penn’s Plainville proposal were both rated “sufficient to very good,” on a four-tier scale: insufficient, sufficient, very good and outstanding. The Leominster proposal, planned for a site near the junction of Route 117 and Interstate 190, “excels with its approach to a balanced entertainment venue,” according to the evaluations led by McHugh.
“This applicant offers a well-documented overall design concept emphasizing an upscale entertainment venue with three features — gaming, dining, and live entertainment — each of which is a draw in and of itself,” according to McHugh’s written summary of the findings. “The applicant has demonstrated that it is focused on an excellent customer experience in all its offerings.”
Penn’s plan, at the junction of Interstate 495 and Route 1, presents a “visually attractive track and open space,” though the project could face delays over traffic plans that need state or federal approval, the review said.
The Penn proposal “provides an integrated design approach marrying the existing harness racing venue and simulcast with the slot parlor in a well-
developed concept,” according to the summary. “The application highlights the continuation of harness racing as a feature of the site, thereby connecting with the local economy and horse racing industry . . . in Massachusetts.”
Raynham Park, the former dog track on Route 138 near Interstate 495, was rated “insufficient to sufficient” in the category, with complaints that the design is “essentially a large box” and the landscape plan does not include enough detail.
The Raynham proposal, with partner Parx Casino, “incorporates gaming, simulcast, and multipurpose space into an internally focused facility set in a large parking area,” the review states. “However, when compared to the other submissions, the application is less developed in its design and documentation.”
The finance review team rated Penn’s project “very good/outstanding,” highest in the category. Cordish earned a “very good” rating and Raynham “sufficient to very good.”
A commission market study suggested each of the proposed slot facilities would generate annual gambling revenue of at least $128 million to $133 million, after the resort casinos open in Massachusetts.
Total gambling revenue from four facilities would total about $1.7 billion a year, regardless of which applicant wins the slot license, according to the forecast.
Commission chairman Stephen Crosby questioned how a Plainville or Raynham facility would generate roughly equal gambling revenue to a Leominster slot parlor, despite facing greater competition in Southeastern Massachusetts and from Greater Boston.
Zuniga’s team said that the southeastern applicants would draw from a denser population.
On Wednesday, the mitigation review led by Commissioner Gayle Cameron will cover how each developer plans to address possible negative effects of their projects. She will compare the strength of public support for each project, and how developers would address traffic and problem gambling.
Commissioner Bruce Stebbins’s presentation on Wednesday will compare the projects on economic development issues, which include job creation, tourism, and effects on small businesses.
The slots license will cost $25 million; the slot parlor will pay a 49 percent state tax on gambling revenue.
Though each slot project has won the endorsement of its host community in municipal referendums, casino opponents are seeking a court ruling to put a repeal of the gambling law on the November statewide ballot.