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Gambling panel formally approves Plainville slots parlor

Penn National Gaming chief operating officer Jay Snowden was all smiles Thursday as the Gaming Commission headed to a vote.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Penn National Gaming chief operating officer Jay Snowden was all smiles Thursday as the Gaming Commission headed to a vote.

It’s official. The state has given the okay to a $225 million slot machine parlor at the Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville, the first official approval in a gambling expansion authorized in 2011 that will also sprinkle as many as three resort-style casinos across the state.

Reaching a major milestone in a closely-watched, sometimes controversial process, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission today formally voted for the slot parlor proposal by Penn National Gaming. The facility could open as soon as spring 2015, Penn National said.

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“Congratulations,’’ commission Chairman Stephen Crosby told Penn National’s top official, Tim Wilmott. “Welcome to Massachusetts.’’

The panel had voted 3-2 on Thursday to endorse Penn’s proposal to expand the state’s only harness racing track, at Route 1 and Interstate 495 in Plainville, creating a racino, or racetrack combined with a gambling hall. Today, after Wilmott readily agreed to conditions on the slot machine license, the panel unanimously approved the license.

Wilmott told commissioners he was heading to Plainville today as the company gets its construction underway. “I should know within a week or so when groundbreaking will be,’’ Wilmott said.

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On Thursday, Penn narrowly edged a highly rated proposal in Leominster by Cordish Cos. A third applicant, Raynham Park, received no votes and did not heavily factor in the debate.

Penn won on the strength of its experience running 27 US facilities, which commissioners suggested makes Penn better suited to weather competition and any downturns in the economy. Commissioners also put weight on the fact that the project would preserve the state’s harness racing industry.

The vote came more than two years after the Legislature legalized casino gambling, paving the way for the slots parlor and the casinos, which are being built in hopes they will stimulate the economy. The commission will conduct similar deliberations this spring, as it awards resort casino licenses in the Greater Boston region and Western Massachusetts.

The third casino license, in Southeastern Massachusetts, is on a later timetable.

Even as work gets underway on the slots parlor, Penn will conduct live harness racing at Plainridge this year, ensuring that the sport and the jobs it supports will continue uninterrupted. The racing season starts in mid-April.

The Penn facility will have 1,250 slot machines, the maximum allowed by law, as well as restaurants and a Doug Flutie sports pub, a first for the former Boston College and NFL quarterback.

The Globe reported today that the possibility of a slots parlor at Plainridge last summer seemed remote, after state investigators discovered that a key member of the former Plainridge leadership team had taken more than $1 million from the track’s money room, and the track’s original owners were banned from the slots competition.

The only wild card in the state’s drive towards expanding gambling: Casino opponents are seeking a court ruling to put a repeal of the state casino law on the November ballot.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story misidentidied Jay Snowden, chief operating officer of Penn National Gaming.

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