Thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues would fall like manna from gambling heaven. For two decades, that’s been the big talking point behind the push to bring casinos to Massachusetts.
Hyperbole was always part of the pitch. But today, the rosiest projections seem ever more fanciful. Just as Massachusetts starts to bank on the money, the glitter is wearing off the industry. No matter how glitzy the drawings for the next gambling mecca, the business itself looks old, tired, and battered by competition — not just from new online gambling options but from other old-school casinos.
The industry slide leaves Massachusetts behind the curve, instead of ahead of it.
Four of 12 casinos are shutting down in Atlantic City, and casinos in Delaware and West Virginia are struggling. In Connecticut, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun just reported double-digit declines in slots revenues. Even Reno now prefers to pitch itself as a destination for high-tech companies rather than a remote Nevada haven for gamblers and quickie-divorce seekers.
“There is dramatic oversupply in the industry right now,” Foxwoods chief executive Scott Butera told The Wall Street Journal. That’s especially true in the Northeast, where more casinos have opened over the past decade than in any other region, the Journal reports. The market is “reaching a saturation point,” according to a recent Fitch Ratings report that was also cited by the Journal.
With three casinos and a slots parlor in the pipeline — plus a bid by the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe to run a fourth casino in the state — Massachusetts will only add to a saturated market. But the shifting fortunes of the gambling industry have yet to infiltrate the political dialogue or dull the appetite of casino operators. Indeed, despite Butera’s somber take on his own industry, Foxwoods was still vying to build a casino in Massachusetts, in the town of Milford, until voters rejected its bid in November.
The state is already relying on gambling revenue, even though a ballot question this November will present voters with the chance to repeal the 2011 casino law. The budget just signed by Governor Deval Patrick includes $73 million in anticipated revenue from casino licensing fees and the slots parlor.
Starting up the casino industry in Massachusetts feels like starting up Wang Laboratories in the age of Google.
David D’Alessandro, the former John Hancock chief executive and longtime gambling foe who is helping to fund the repeal effort, said the gambling market in Massachusetts is already saturated before a casino even opens. “We’re going to be stealing from our own lottery,” he said, referring to the 42-year-old state lottery, which leads the nation in per capita wagering.
According to its website, the state lottery returned over $955.8 million in net profit to the state in fiscal 2013. Of that, $868.9 million in local aid was distributed to the Commonwealth’s 351 cities and towns. A succession of casino impact reports over the years predicted some money would be siphoned off from the lottery, but advocates have always insisted the state could somehow make it up.
Why would Massachusetts want to give up 100 percent of lottery-generated revenue for 25 percent of gross casino-generated revenue? “We’re smarter than that,” said D’Alessandro.
Or at least we should be.
Still, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission website continues to predict $300 million to $500 million in annual new revenue. The website prominently displays news about the gambling debate in the Commonwealth — but omits any headlines about the industry’s souring prospects nationally.
Despite growing evidence to the contrary, Massachusetts still thinks of casinos as a growth industry. Maybe they were 20 years ago. But today, starting up the casino industry in Massachusetts feels like starting up Wang Laboratories in the age of Google.
Massachusetts prides itself on adaptation — on its ability to foster new tech startups in areas where clipper ships once delivered riches from overseas. Yet with casinos, it’s buying into an industry as old as time and riskier than ever before.
As Atlantic City struggles to reinvent itself, it can only dream of having an economy as diverse and thriving as Boston’s. As Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza Casino prepares to close in mid-September, Donald Trump crowed that he only has a 10 percent stake in Trump Entertainment Resorts, which owns it. “I got out seven years ago. My timing was tremendous,” said Trump.
Too bad Massachusetts, which is just now getting into casinos, can’t say the same.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.