After two days of deliberations by gambling regulators, the race for the state's sole slot parlor license appears to have narrowed into a head-to-head contest between Penn National Gaming and Cordish Cos., the companies that consistently scored best in the state gambling commission's exhaustive review of the three proposals.
On Thursday, in the commission's most anticipated meeting since the panel was formed in 2012, the five members are set to begin their final discussions to decide which project will win the state's sole slot parlor license.
Commissioners expect to pick a winner no later than Friday. Their decision could come as soon as Thursday.
Not even the commissioners are sure how the discussions will unfold, but they probably will look a lot like a jury deliberation — if juries had to perform in open session before a public audience and the media.
"We're learning as we go on this, but I think I'll probably ask everybody where they stand," said commission chairman Stephen Crosby, explaining to reporters how he will kick off the final deliberations.
The panel has had very few split votes, and the commissioners will try to be unanimous this week, if they can, on such a significant choice.
The discussions will take into account a series of rankings the commission has developed for each project, across five distinct categories.
Commissioners, each of whom oversaw the review in one category, spent Tuesday and Wednesday presenting their findings.
Penn National's proposal, planned for Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville, earned the highest score in two of the five categories: finance and mitigation. The Cordish project, proposed for Jungle Road in Leominster, won one category: general overview of development plans. The two developers tied for the top score in other categories: building and site design, and economic development.
The commission has yet to decide how much weight to give to each category. Those decisions are expected to evolve during the panel's final deliberations.
A third proposal, by Raynham Park, the simulcast parlor and former dog track in Raynham, won no categories. In many cases it scored behind both Penn and Cordish, and it is difficult to imagine, based on the rankings, how Raynham could leapfrog the other two projects. The commissioners, who reviewed the projects in two categories on Tuesday, finished up the final three categories Wednesday.
On economic development, Penn and Cordish each scored "very good" ratings for encouraging tourism, support for external businesses, and for job creation, finishing ahead of Raynham Park, which was rated "sufficient" in each area, according to documents summarizing the review led by commissioner Bruce Stebbins.
In the mitigation category, which included a comparison of the strength of public support for each project, the three applicants rated equally on the contents of their negotiated municipal host agreements, and their deals with surrounding communities.
Cordish's traffic management plan scored best among the three. "It was a more detailed plan than the others, with more commitments to the community," said commissioner Gayle Cameron, who led the review of the mitigation category.
Penn National's plans to combat problem gambling earned the highest score. Its "responsible gambling practices appear to meet, and in a number of cases exceed, the American Gaming Association's responsible code of conduct," Cameron said.
In the fifth and final category of review — general overview — Cordish came out on top.
The Central Massachusetts project, near the junction of Interstate 190 and Route 117, was "judged to be the most effective regional location for a gaming facility, on the theory that in the long run, the region is least likely to be served by the other Mass. gaming facilities," according to a summary of the review, led by Crosby.
Crosby said he was pleased with the way the commission's public presentations had unfolded over many hours on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"What we've wanted to do is have a participatory, transparent process," he said.
The state's expanded gambling law, passed in 2011, authorized as many as three resort-style casinos and one slot parlor permitted to have 1,250 slot machines. The slot applicants are also offering restaurants and other amenities.
The slots license will cost $25 million; the slot parlor will pay a 49 percent state tax on gambling revenue.