The state’s tumultuous effort to launch the casino gambling industry took a giant leap forward Thursday, with the state gambling commission’s milestone selection of Penn National Gaming to build the first slot machine parlor in Massachusetts, at Plainridge Racecourse.
Penn’s $225 million proposal to expand the state’s only harness racing track, at Route 1 and Interstate 495 in Plainville, into a gambling hall won a 3-to-2 majority in a vote of the five-
member commission. Penn narrowly edged a highly rated proposal in Leominster by Cordish Cos. A third applicant, Raynham Park, received no votes and did not heavily factor in debate.
Penn officials are wasting no time, scheduling a design and construction meeting Monday in Plainville. They expect to open for business by spring 2015.
Penn won on the strength of its experience running 27 US facilities, which commissioners suggested makes Penn better suited to weather competition and any downturns in the economy. Commissioners also put weight on the fact that the project would preserve the state’s harness racing industry.
Thursday’s vote followed hours of tense back-and-forth deliberations, held entirely in open session and broadcast on the Internet, offering the public unusual access to the sausage-making behind such a far-reaching decision.
“I think I’ve lost about five years off my life watching those deliberations,” said Timothy J. Wilmott, Penn National chief executive. “I’m relieved. Elated. Like an expectant father getting a healthy baby.”
The vote came more than two years after the Legislature legalized casino gambling, paving the way for a slots parlor and up to three resort casinos. The commission will conduct similar deliberations this spring, as it awards resort casino licenses in the Greater Boston region and Western Massachusetts.
The third casino license, in Southeastern Massachusetts, is on a later timetable.
Even as work gets underway on the slots parlor, Penn will conduct live harness racing at Plainridge this year, ensuring that the sport and the jobs it supports will continue uninterrupted. The racing season starts in mid-April, Penn said.
“This is the biggest day ever,” said Bob Bogigian, a board member of the Harness Horseman’s Association of New England and owner of two horses that race at Plainridge. He said the vote benefits stable workers, farms across the state that raise horses, people who work as farriers, large animal veterinarians, and grain merchants.
“We’ve really been struggling for the past couple years,” he said of the industry. “Now we have a life.”
The Penn facility will have 1,250 slot machines, the maximum allowed by law, as well as restaurants and a Doug Flutie sports pub, a first for the former Boston College and NFL quarterback.
“It’s going to be fun to get my Heisman Trophy out of my living room and into a place where others will be able to enjoy it too,” Flutie said in a statement after the vote.
Last summer, the possibility of a slots parlor at Plainridge seemed remote, after state investigators discovered that a key member of the former Plainridge leadership team had taken more than $1 million from the track’s money room, and the track’s original owners were banned from the slots competition.
Penn faced its own setbacks, first in Springfield, where the company’s casino proposal lost out to a rival project by MGM, and then Tewksbury, where Town Meeting voters slammed the door on a slots parlor pitch. Penn found a friendlier political climate in Plainville after the company swooped in on short notice, negotiated an option to buy the track and revived slot machine plans at the struggling racecourse.
“We’ve been through so many ups and downs. . . . It was a jump ball until the very end, which was indicative of the whole process,” Plainville Town Administrator Joseph Fernandes said shortly after the vote. “This is a huge opportunity for the Commonwealth and obviously for Penn, but it means so much to Plainville. It is an opportunity we will take great care not to squander, and we won’t.”
Dale Bergevine — who led the People for Plainville, a local group supporting casino plans — said his phone “blew up” as the final vote was cast.
“We were all on pins and needles, and then we all just exploded with the news,” he said. “I want a great tax base. I grew up here and want my children to be able to raise their families here. This is a huge, huge win.”
Gambling commissioners opened their final deliberations Thursday by offering their thoughts on the projects in an informal straw poll. Raynham Park, which has long engaged in fierce competition with Plainridge for racing customers, was effectively eliminated at this point, receiving no votes.
Commissioners Gayle Cameron, Enrique Zuniga, and Bruce Stebbins each favored Plainville, citing Penn’s vast experience, as well as the opportunity to preserve racing.
“Racing is an important piece,” Cameron said.
Stebbins, however, initially sounded less firm than the other Penn votes.
Commissioner James McHugh and commission chairman Stephen Crosby backed the Leominster project, suggesting that Cordish is an innovative company and that the development would do the most good for its region.
“They’re in a place that needs imagination,” McHugh said of Cordish.
The debate evolved into a point-counterpoint, pitting Zuniga and Cameron against Crosby and McHugh, as the four commissioners dug in their heels and sounded unlikely to change their minds.
The pro-Cordish commissioners realized they needed to flip Stebbins to win the vote; the Penn supporters were eager to keep Stebbins in their camp.
During a lunch break, Stebbins, clearly the target of the intense debate, seemed at ease, breezily conferring with staff. He did not look like a man agonizing over a tough decision.
The debate continued into the afternoon, until Crosby asked Stebbins if he wanted to hear more, or was he ready to vote?
Stebbins was ready, and Penn’s victory was at hand.
Crosby admitted he had a “tiny bit of a sick feeling” that the commission might be bypassing a greater opportunity in Leominster, but both he and McHugh said it was an extremely close contest between the proposals and expressed confidence that Penn would do a fine job.
Stebbins said later that he never wavered during debate. Penn and Cordish were both very strong, he said, and his decision “really got down to some fine details” about creating jobs and capturing gambling revenue the state now loses to casinos in Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Paul DeBole, assistant professor of political science at Lasell College and a specialist on gambling regulation, said the commission made the right choice with the suburban site. “In terms of population, it has access to a more dense area,” he said.
A Plainville slot parlor will also be “less intrusive into lower socioeconomic areas” than the Leominster plan, reducing the chance that those who can least afford to lose money will gamble too much, DeBole said.
The commission attached a set of conditions to the license and gave Penn a day to review them. If Penn accepts the conditions — and no major problems are expected — the commission will take another vote Friday to formally award Penn the license.
Casino opponent John Ribeiro, head of a campaign to repeal the casino law, said the commission vote for Penn “is just another indicator that it’s time for the people of Massachusetts, as a Commonwealth, to vote on casinos.
“The process for selecting casinos and slot parlors is no less lopsided, loaded with politics and the influence of deep casino pockets than the legislative process which made this debacle possible,” Ribeiro said in a statement.
Opponents are seeking a court ruling to put a repeal of the state casino law on the November ballot.
Globe correspondent Ellen Ishkanian contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.
Correction: Because of an editing error, a caption with a story in Friday’s paper about the state gambling commission approving a slot license for Plainridge racetrack misidentified Jay Snowden. He is the chief operating officer of Penn National Gaming.