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One year in, Plainridge casino seen as modest success

Plainridge Park Casino’s sales could fall 55 percent when all three Massachusetts casinos are open, its own forecasts say.
Plainridge Park Casino’s sales could fall 55 percent when all three Massachusetts casinos are open, its own forecasts say.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File/Globe Freelance

On its opening day in June of last year, Plainridge Park Casino was thronged with gamblers, eager to try their luck at the state’s first Las Vegas-style slot parlor. Fueled by projections that the modestly sized casino might bring in as much as $300 million in its first year, expectations were sky-high.

But the novelty quickly wore off, and revenue fell well below forecasts. As the Plainville casino recently marked its first anniversary, the yearly tally was a disappointing $160 million.

With a year’s perspective, casino specialists said Plainridge fell victim to much larger rivals in Connecticut and Rhode Island, especially Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I. Just 11 miles from the Plainville casino, Twin River has a full array of table games, more than three times as many slot machines, and it has smoking sections.

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“The whole goal of Plainridge was to cut off the flow into Rhode Island, and that happened, but only to a minimal extent,” said Clyde Barrow, a University of Texas professor who closely follows the New England casino industry.

Given the slot parlor’s inherent limitations, however, its performance also attests to the great demand for gambling in Massachusetts. Plainridge Park not only seized almost $30 million in slot revenue from competing casinos, it captured about $130 million in new revenue in an increasingly crowded market.

That bodes well for the full-scale casinos slated to open in Everett, Taunton, and Springfield within the next three years, specialists say.

“People in Massachusetts want to gamble, there’s no question about that,” Barrow said. “It’s one of the most lucrative, untapped markets in the world.”

In this light, Plainridge Park is something of a placeholder, a way to keep some gambling revenue in Massachusetts until the resort casinos are up and running. Stephen Crosby, chairman of the state Gaming Commission, acknowledged the casino’s first year fell short of expectations, but noted that it contributed some $80 million in state taxes, money “we wouldn’t otherwise have received.”

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Crosby described Plainridge Park as a clear success, citing the creation of about 500 new jobs and low levels of harmful impacts, such as drunken driving and problem gambling.

“The first year shows it’s possible to bring in the positive effects of gambling without the negatives,” Crosby said. “Everyone talked with this exaggerated sense of anxiety about increases in prostitution, in human trafficking, in drunkenness, but it hasn’t happened.”

Police statistics show no increase in crime because of the casino, and problem gambling specialists assigned to the casino report little evidence of compulsive betting, he said.

Penn National Gaming, the casino company that owns Plainridge, said it underestimated the effect of nearby Twin River Casino.

“This is a highly competitive market where we learned that, despite having the newest product and great customer service, we underestimated the ongoing benefit that table games and indoor smoking continues to provide Twin River,” said Eric Schippers, senior vice president for public affairs for Penn National.

The company is optimistic about the casino’s future, he added. For its size, the casino’s revenue figures are strong.

“We operate successfully in highly competitive markets across the country and expect to do the same in Massachusetts,” he said.

When the state approved casinos in 2011, it came as a compromise, with Governor Deval Patrick favoring only full-scale resort casinos and House Speaker Robert DeLeo pushing for legislation that included help for the struggling horse-racing industry.

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In the end, the state authorized three resort casinos, complete with hotels, spas, and other amenities, and one slot parlor with no table games and a modest 1,250 machines. It was a blueprint born more from political necessity than to maximize gambling revenues.

But in choosing Plainridge Park over a proposal for Leominster, a city in Worcester County, the Gaming Commission made it clear they expected the casino to keep more Massachusetts gamblers from crossing into Rhode Island.

So far, that hope has not panned out. Officials at Twin River anticipated it would lose at least 15 percent of its revenue to its new rival, but in the first 11 months of head-to-head competition saw business drop just 5 percent.

“We’re OK, the way things stand at the moment,” said John E. Taylor Jr., chairman of Twin River Management.

The future of Plainridge Park is far less certain, specialists say. The slot parlor will take a massive hit when the resort casinos open in 2018 or 2019, and could face more competition if Rhode Island voters back a statewide referendum to build a new casino in Tiverton, just over the Massachusetts line from Fall River.

Plainridge’s own five-year projections, submitted to the state in 2014, call for as much as a 55 percent drop in business when all three Massachusetts resort casinos open, which would drive annual revenue well below $100 million.

To survive, Plainridge may need to expand, either by adding slot machines or table games, said Paul DeBole, an assistant political science professor at Lasell College in Newton and a specialist in gambling regulation.

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“Competition is going to get a lot more fierce in the near future,” DeBole said.

Schippers, of Penn National, said the company has “no immediate plans” to expand or seek a lower tax rate.

Specialists say that if Plainridge’s first year is a bellwether, it illustrates the limitations of the casino more than the region’s gambling market.

With above-average incomes, Massachusetts residents will be drawn to full-fledged resort casinos in far greater numbers than a smaller, “convenience” slot parlor, specialists say.

“There’s reason to believe resort casinos will do very well,” Barrow said.


Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.