Plainville residents will go to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether to allow a slots parlor at the Plainridge Racecourse that town officials say will not only give this small community the economic boost it needs, but save harness racing in Massachusetts.
Prospects for a slots parlor and restaurant complex at the racetrack, off Interstate 495 and Route 1 and about 5 miles south of Gillette Stadium, appeared grim last month, when the state gaming agency ruled its owners unfit to hold a slots parlor license.
But Penn National Gaming made an eleventh-hour move to secure an option to buy the track, and take over the gaming application, after Tewksbury voters turned down its proposal for a slots parlor there. On Wednesday, selectmen agreed to transfer the host community agreement it had negotiated with Plainridge’s owners to Penn National.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission decided on Friday to allow Penn National to pick up the effort to bring slots to Plainridge.
While the overwhelming majority of the approximately 45 people who attended a forum on the proposal Thursday night enthusiastically support the plans, and greeted Penn National representatives with several rounds of applause, members of No Plainville Racino called foul.
Mary-Ann Greaner, a vocal opponent of the proposal, said the law clearly stipulates there should be 60 days between the time a host agreement is signed by an applicant, in this case Penn National, and when the community holds a vote.
“It’s not subjective, either they signed it or they didn’t, and they didn’t,” she said. “We don’t know anything about Penn National. We believed the law was going to protect us from things like this.”
But Eric Schippers, Penn National senior vice president of public affairs, said Tuesday’s vote is simply asking residents whether they want a gaming facility at Plainridge.
“It’s up to the Gaming Commission to decide whether Penn National is suitable,” he said.
The company’s background check is scheduled to be completed by the state commission later this month.
Greaner said Thursday that her group was still undecided about how to proceed if the commission approved the transfer to Penn National.
The Pennsylvania-based company owns 21 casinos, 11 racetracks and five off-track wagering facilities across the United States, including the Hollywood Casino Hotel & Raceway in Bangor, which has a harness racetrack.
“Without gaming, live racing faces a very difficult future,” said Chris McErlean, vice president of racing at Penn National. “Integrating facilities linking racing and gaming is really our sweet spot, this is really what this company does well.”
For 10-year Plainville resident Tanya Perkins, the owner of the slot-machine parlor makes no difference.
“I grew up in Connecticut and I don’t think the casinos there did good things for those towns,” she said. “Plainville has the potential to be a lot more than what some people feel it can be. We need to develop a sense of identity that’s not associated with a casino.”
That was not the sentiment of the overwhelming majority of those who attended the Thursday meeting, however.
“I’m for it, I feel it’s going to be beneficial for the town, it’s going to be the best thing for the town,” said Ellen DeAngelis, who has lived in Plainville for 13 years. “The tax revenue will help a lot of people.”
Mary Griswold, a 35-year resident, also supports the slots parlor, and said she believes the town should do everything it can to save harness racing.
“If we put those horsemen out of work, that would be awful,” she said. “I don’t gamble, but I don’t believe I have the right to tell anyone else not to.”
Penn National’s Schippers and town officials said the host community agreement in Plainville is the best it has negotiated. It includes revenue to the town from the development of $4.5 million a year for the first five years of operation, with a slight decrease in years six through 10, and then an increase to $3.3 million annually starting in year 11. It also includes 300 construction jobs, and 400 full-time positions, and improvements to Route 1 and I-495 to mitigate traffic issues.
“Look at $31 million in Boston and the $4 million in a community of this size, and I’d say that’s a good agreement,” Schippers said.
There are two competitors for the slots license who have passed their state background checks: the Cordish Cos., planning a gambling parlor in Leominster; and Raynham Park, the simulcast betting parlor and former dog racing track in Raynham. A third candidate, an affiliate of Rush Street Gaming seeking to build in Millbury, withdrew last week. Raynham voters endorsed the local proposal in a binding referendum last month. Leominster residents will vote Sept. 24.
Plainville Town Administrator Joseph Fernandes said one of the things the Gaming Commission will consider when granting a license will be community support.
“The good folks of Raynham voted 86 percent in favor,” he said. “We need a very competitive showing.”
Arthur Roy, chairman of the town’s Board of Election Registrars, took it a step further.
“Tuesday is the most important vote in the history of this town,’’ he said. “Nothing less than 100 percent participation will do.”