Metro

Proposed R.I. casino would stand feet from Mass. border

A 1,000-slot casino is being proposed for a 45-acre area in Tiverton, R.I., only 380 feet from Fall River, Mass.
Twin River Management
A 1,000-slot casino is being proposed for a 45-acre area in Tiverton, R.I., only 380 feet from Fall River, Mass.

TIVERTON, R.I. — A flashy new casino with more than 1,000 slot machines and dozens of blackjack and roulette tables might soon replace a scrubby little patch of land here, just 380 feet from the Massachusetts state line.

Some say the would-be developer picked this small Rhode Island town bordering Fall River because a casino here could draw gamblers away from Massachusetts and perhaps even prompt the state to abandon its own plans to license a casino in Brockton, New Bedford, or Somerset.

Developers in Southeastern Massachusetts are envisioning a grand casino that would require as much as $650 million in investment and a customer base broad enough to support such an expensive hotel and casino.

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But that kind of investment could be too risky if a casino in Tiverton, proposed this month by the company that manages Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I., threatens to soak up too many gamblers from both sides of the border.

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“A casino on the Tiverton line would obviously hinder the success of a casino in either Somerset or New Bedford,” Fall River Mayor C. Samuel Sutter said. “And it would rely mostly on Massachusetts customers with very little benefit to Massachusetts.”

Since two Native American tribes first introduced Las Vegas-style gambling in New England in the early 1990s, states hungry for new revenues have maneuvered for advantage not only in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but also in Connecticut and New Hampshire.

“It’s like a game of chess,” said Enrique Zuniga, a member of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. “The question is, ‘How many casino operations can be supported and at what size?’ ”

John Taylor, chairman of Twin River Management, said he is aware that some view his Tiverton proposal as a possible bluff intended only to dissuade Massachusetts from awarding a license for the state’s southeast region.

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“Some people say it’s a bluff, but I assure you it is not,” he said

Zuniga and another commission member, Gayle Cameron, had expressed doubts about whether Southeastern Massachusetts had enough gambling demand to support a casino, even before Twin River Management began promoting its plan at Tiverton town hall.

Cameron said the commission for years has heard dire predictions that Massachusetts could lose market share to casinos more quickly developed in neighboring states.

“First it was New Hampshire, then Connecticut, now Rhode Island,” she said. “We never know what’s real and what’s not.”

Cameron said the commission should evaluate the proposals for Southeastern Massachusetts casinos without being distracted by what’s happening in Tiverton.

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“When the time comes for Southeastern Massachusetts, we’ll do a market analysis to help us decide,” she said.

‘The question is, “How many casino operations can be supported and at what size?” ’

Enrique Zuniga, Mass. Gaming Commission member 

Twin River Management has an interest in freezing a casino in Southeastern Massachusetts, even if the company ultimately fails to build in Tiverton. Twin River Casino in Lincoln for years has attracted many thousands of gamblers from Massachusetts, some of whom might be expected to stay home if a casino is developed in Southeastern Massachusetts.

Taylor, of Twin River Management, said his analysis shows Tiverton can succeed against an array of casinos, including ones in Lincoln; Plainville, Mass.; an undetermined location in Southeastern Massachusetts — and even one more operated by the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribe in Taunton, Mass., if the tribe gets approval.

Because of the anticipated heavy competition in the region, Taylor said Twin River Management plans to build a casino much smaller in scale than the $650 million resort casino mentioned for Southeastern Massachusetts. A smaller casino requiring a smaller investment and a smaller customer base makes sense in such a competitive environment, he said.

“A $650 million resort casino — that’s a business plan that just does not work,” he said. “What will work, we think, is an appropriately sized casino.”

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.