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Raynham, Plainville are nearby rivals for slots license

Plainridge

George Rizer for the Boston Globe

Plainridge officials say they will close the racetrack if they do not get the license.

Officials in Raynham and Plainville, two similar communities less than 20 miles apart, are hoping to reap the jobs and revenue they say will come from a slots parlor built in their town.

With a decision on where to site the state’s lone slot-machine casino expected by the end of next month or early March, backers of proposals for Raynham Park in Raynham and Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville are waging a battle started years ago in both towns to win the license they say will rejuvenate the failing facilities while adding jobs and revenue to the area.

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A third proposal, filed by the Cordish Cos. for a $200 million gambling, dining, and entertainment complex in Leominster, near the junction of Route 117 and Interstate 190 in the north-central part of the state, is also in the running for the license to be granted by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

Penn National Gaming of Pennsylvania is the developer behind the proposal at the harness horse racing track in Plainville, and the slot development plan for Raynham Park, the simulcast betting facility and former dog track, is being promoted in partnership with Greenwood Racing, owner of the Parx Casino outside Philadelphia.

In Raynham and Plainville, where there is a history of betting on races and where the slots parlor proposals were approved in local referendums by better than 3-to-1 ratios, officials have long eyed the gaming machines as the answer to sagging revenues.

“We’re down to the wire now,” said Plainville’s town administrator, Joseph Fernandes. “We think we are in a good position.”

Plainridge is the only track in the state where harness racing still takes place.

Since the start of the process, Plainridge officials have said that if they are not awarded the license allowing up to 1,250 slot machines, the track would close. With the livelihood of 446 people working directly in harness racing as drivers, groomers, trainers and breeders in jeopardy, the stakes are high for the community.

Those stakes are not lost on George Carney and Greenwood Racing. Carney, whose family has owned Raynham Park for the past 50 years, watched the state outlaw greyhound racing in 2008. The statewide vote idled the track on his property off Route 138, where the clubhouse now is used for simulcasts of greyhound dog races in other states, and thoroughbred and harness horse races.

So he has sweetened his casino application with a promise that if he wins the license for Raynham Park, he will bring harness racing to the Brockton Fairgrounds, which he also owns.

“There is already a track and grandstand there,” said Conor Yunits, a spokesman for Raynham Park. “And Greenwood has pledged $5 million or $6 million to fix it up and make it suitable for harness racing.

“We’ve made that an important piece of our application,” he said.

Eric Schippers, senior vice president at Penn National, declined to comment on his competitor’s proposal. But in an e-mail to the Globe, he wrote that Penn National “is the only applicant who can ensure the long-term future of harness racing in the Commonwealth.”

Penn National already runs a New England harness horse racing track at its Hollywood Casino in Bangor.

Once considered the front-runner in the slots sweepstakes, Plainridge suffered a setback when the track’s owner, Ourway Realty, was disqualified in the licensing process in August. The disqualification came after state investigators discovered that former Plainridge president Gary T. Piontkowski had taken about $1.4 million in cash from the track’s money room in regular small withdrawals over several years.

But the town and the company regrouped, found a buyer in Penn National, and moved forward with a $225 million proposal that Fernandes says is now a better fit for the town.

“Penn National has been a terrific partner,” he said.

At meetings in town and at hearings held by the Gaming Commission, residents have enthusiastically supported the proposed slots parlor, saying that it’s important to the character of the town to maintain harness racing and associated businesses, and that jobs and the infusion of cash into the town coffers are badly needed.

The host agreement calls for Penn National to pay the town $2.7 million a year for the first five years of the slots parlor’s operation, a smaller annual payment in years six through 10, and then an estimated $3.3 million annually from year 11 on. In addition, Penn National has promised 300 construction jobs, and 400 full-time positions, as well as improvements to Route 1 and Interstate 495 to lessen the impact of the increased traffic.

While there is a small, vocal group of area residents still fighting the proposal, Penn National has already filed an extensive final environmental impact report with the state, and successfully negotiated surrounding community agreements with North Attleborough, Wrentham and Mansfield. The company is still negotiating with Foxborough, and was confident a deal could be reached at a meeting scheduled for Monday.

“I just hope Foxborough isn’t trying to get more than the other surrounding communities,” Fernandes said.

The Plainridge plan includes construction of the slots parlor, a conference center, retail space, offices, and restaurants, including one owned by former Boston College and National Football League quarterback Doug Flutie.

Penn National also plans to renovate the existing building and make exterior cosmetic changes to accommodate 500 slot machines and limited food and beverage service within six months of winning the license.

For surrounding communities, increased traffic on the back roads is a concern. Penn National has said it would monitor the traffic, and take steps to alleviate any problems that surface.

In Raynham, town planner John M. Charbonneau said a number of municipal department heads met with representatives from Raynham Park recently to go over plans for the first phase of the $220 million project. While there are still some questions about water and traffic, Charbonneau said, there was general support for the project.

“The townspeople have indicated that they want this project, so as the town planner it is my job to see that it happens,” he said.

He said cut-through traffic, primarily by local residents using back roads to avoid potential slowdowns on Route 138 by the casino, is a concern for people who live in the area.

According to the host community agreement signed with the town, the developers would pay Raynham $1 million a year for the first three years the slots parlor is open, and increase the payment by 2.5 percent in subsequent years, capping it at 1 percent of gross gaming revenue after the 20th year of operation.

Raynham Park would also contribute $100,000 annually to a capital costs enhancement fund, and contribute $15,000 per year to the Route 138 business façade improvement program.

Yunits, the Raynahm Park spokesman, said the company has reached surrounding community agreements with Taunton, Middleborough and West Bridgewater, and is still in negotiations with Easton.

Like Plainridge, Raynham Park is also prepared to install 500 slot machines within six months of a license being granted. The immediate plans include renovating the clubhouse, repaving and repainting the parking lot, and adding traffic improvements at the entrance.

The first phase would also include tearing down the abandoned grandstand behind the clubhouse, and removing the side business Carney has run since greyhound racing ended. The business, which recycles asphalt, concrete and brick, involves heavy equipment and what appears to be huge dirt piles in the Raynham Park parking lot.

“I view this as something that is very important for our community,” Raynham’s town administrator, Randall A. Buckner, said. “It will create jobs and be a way to clean up the property.”

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.
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