Officials in Plainville and three neighboring towns are calling on the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to support an expansion of Plainridge Park Casino, the state’s only slots parlor, to keep pace with its Rhode Island competitors.
Local officials have recently written the commission to express their support for allowing table games and more slot machines at the Plainville casino, located at the junction of Route 1 and Interstate 495 not far from the Rhode Island border, according to letters acquired by the Globe. Rhode Island has two full-fledged casinos that offer table games and recently opened sports betting.
The call for expanding Plainridge comes as the commission says it will soon turn its attention to the future of casino gambling in Southeastern Massachusetts.
“It goes without saying that [Plainridge’s] ability to compete is limited by the fact that it cannot offer table games,” reads a letter to the gaming commission signed by Matthew Kavanah, chairman of the Plainville Board of Selectmen. “This creates a considerable disadvantage to the Commonwealth and our community, and has already impacted revenues and may risk jobs in the future.”
Plainridge Park Casino opened at an existing racetrack in 2015, the year after its owner, Penn National Gaming, won the state’s only slots parlor license. Under state law, the casino is limited to 1,250 slot machines and may not offer live table games, such as blackjack and craps, although electronic versions are permitted.
“The town asks that the commission consider seeking approval by the legislature to have greater flexibility to protect what has been achieved in Plainville by authorizing a modest table game offering and gaming machine increase” at Plainridge, Kavanah wrote.
Massachusetts also has approved two resort casinos, which are much larger and have table games and hotels. The MGM Springfield resort opened in August. Construction is ongoing at Encore Boston Harbor, which is scheduled to open in Everett in June.
Officials in Franklin, North Attleborough, and Wrentham also wrote the commission in support of a Plainridge expansion, saying their towns have benefited from the development. Kavanah said Plainridge has “been singularly positive”; it has created hundreds of jobs and spends over $5 million annually with state businesses.
“It is not hyperbole to call it game-changing for our region,” he wrote.
Gambling specialists had long anticipated the casino and its supporters would eventually lobby for table games. The push for expanding Plainridge came in response to the gaming commission’s request for public comment on the state’s final resort casino license, which is earmarked for Southeastern Massachusetts. The commission’s legal division is reviewing the public comments and is expected to revisit the next steps for the southeast after Jan. 1, a spokeswoman said this week.
Jennifer Thompson, Plainville’s town administrator, said the town is not looking to turn Plainridge into a resort casino, but to buttress it with “a mild expansion” to permit more slots machines and live table games.
“Just enough to allow them to compete with Rhode Island,” she said.
Penn National has not formally proposed an expansion. But Eric Schippers, a senior vice president, said in a statement that the company takes the cross-border competition very seriously. It looks forward to “a discussion about the best way for the Commonwealth to compete against Rhode Island’s aggressive efforts,” he said.
Rhode Island depends heavily on gambling revenue and has taken several steps to fortify its casinos against Massachusetts competitors. After Massachusetts legalized casino gambling in 2011, Rhode Island moved to allow live table games at Twin River Casino in Lincoln. Rhode Island then added another casino in Tiverton, just over the Massachusetts border from Fall River, about 40 highway miles from Plainridge.
The state also swiftly took advantage of a US Supreme Court ruling in May that cleared the way for legal sports betting, which began last month in Rhode Island. Massachusetts has not yet approved sports gambling; the state’s casino operators would like to be able to offer it.
For years, the gaming commission has held back the southeast license, wary that the Mashpee Wampanoag may win federal approval to open a tribal casino in Taunton. Having a commercial resort casino and a tribal casino in the region — along with nearby Plainridge and the Rhode Island casinos — could saturate the market.
The Mashpee have encountered legal roadblocks but could still someday win federal approval to open a tribal casino. If the commission were to withhold a commercial license indefinitely, an expanded Plainridge would be in a stronger market position. Clyde Barrow, a casino specialist at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said he anticipated a push to expand Plainridge; it is the simplest way to address the complicated, uncertain future of casino gambling in the region. “The easiest solution is to grow the facility that is already built,” he said.
One downside to an expansion could be the precedent it sets for an industry that has shown an insatiable appetite for growth.
“People have already lost more than half a billion dollars of their personal wealth to Plainridge casino since 2015,” Les Bernal, national director of the anticasino group Stop Predatory Gambling, said in a statement. “Allowing Plainridge to add more slots is like letting a wealthy used car dealer who sells lemons to the public to get richer by allowing them to sell even more lemons.”
Plainridge Park brought in $13.5 million in slots revenue in October, similar to its revenue in October 2017 and $1 million more than in October 2016. Plainridge pays 49 percent of its gambling revenue to the state, a total of $271 million since opening.
Mark Arsenault can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.