Plainville officials are pushing forward with a town referendum Sept. 10 on putting a slots parlor at the Plainridge Racecourse, even though the state gaming agency has disqualified the group that was proposing the facility.
The local officials are hoping that a proposal elsewhere in the state will fall through, and its already-vetted applicant will turn to Plainridge as an alternate site, with the harness track alongside Interstate 495 once considered the front-runner for the state’s lone license for a slots-only casino.
At the same time, casino opponents in Plainville are moving ahead with their fight against the proposal, convinced that a last-minute bid using the track would have an advantage over other proposals.
The Board of Selectmen’s chairman, Robert Fennessy, said that with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission’s application deadline set for Oct. 4, time is running out to salvage the plan that officials had hoped would not only revitalize the town’s economy, but save harness racing in the state.
“If we don’t hold the election, there’s no chance at all,” he said. “My sense, from day one, is that people in this town have been strong proponents of slots, and they deserve a chance to be heard. We’re keeping that flicker of hope.”
Although approval by residents would keep the door open for a new owner to move the racino plans forward, there is no guarantee the Gaming Commission would go along with it, the agency’s spokeswoman noted.
“Any potential new scenario would need to be reviewed by the commission and they would make a decision based on the totality of circumstances,” said Elaine Driscoll.
The Gaming Commission disqualified Plainridge’s owners from the slots application process early this month, after state investigators discovered that the track’s former president, Gary T. Piontkowski, had taken about $1.4 million in cash from its money room in regular small withdrawals over several years.
Bill Ryan, spokesman for Plainridge Racecourse, said the owners are “literally working on a 24/7 basis” to find buyers willing to move forward with the plans to put 1,200-plus slot machines at the track, and reiterated their view that without the additional revenue, the state’s lone harness racing venue would close, costing 586 people their jobs.
“It’s the focus of everyone’s time and attention, so harness racing can continue in the state and the area can see the positive economic benefits,” he said, adding that he could not make public the names of any interested potential buyers.
With the deadline just about seven weeks away, Fennessy said, it would be virtually impossible for a newcomer to the state’s lengthy vetting process to complete an application in time.
But, he said, there is a possibility that one of the companies already involved in the process with proposals in Leominster, Millbury, or Tewksbury could be swayed to take up the Plainville project if residents in one of those towns reject the plan, either through a referendum or in a Town Meeting vote on any required zoning changes.
“We’ll know more about what we’re up against after some of these votes,” he said.
Town Meeting in Tewksbury was scheduled to vote Tuesday night on zoning changes for a proposal by Penn National Gaming to put a slots parlor on land off Route 133. A special town election on the agreement with Penn National is slated for Sept. 21.
Votes are scheduled for Sept. 24 in Leominster, where the Cordish Cos. is seeking to build a slots parlor, and in Millbury, where an affiliate of Rush Street Gaming has filed a proposal.
Voters in Raynham have already approved plans to build a slots casino, restaurants, hotel, and bowling alley on the site of the former Raynham Park dog track.
Mary-Ann Greanier, a member of No Plainville Racino, worries that the state’s desire to save harness racing could lure a developer from another town to Plainville, thinking the site has an edge.
“If they buy Plainridge in the eleventh hour, it could give them a leg up in the license decision because of the racing component,” she said. “That’s why we’re continuing our campaign against slots.”
Greanier said it is unfair to ask voters to decide on whether to allow slots when they probably will not even know who would be running the operation.
“Would you hire someone you’ve never interviewed, never even met? That’s what’s going to happen,” she said.
Of the 586 people working at Plainridge, 446 are directly involved in harness racing as drivers, groomers, trainers, or breeders, according to Ryan, who said the track is among the town’s largest taxpayers.
For more than a decade, Fennessy said, local officials and residents had looked toward slots at Plainridge to save harness racing and create more jobs and revenue for the town. The track’s owners even built a parking garage at the site in anticipation of winning the license.
“I was totally floored when I heard the news” of the company’s disqualification from the slots process, he said.
“There was a lot counting on this,” Fennessy said. “But Plainville wasn’t built on a racetrack. If this is the end, we’ll move on. Racing might be gone, but we’ll find another use for the site.”