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Two hours after formally winning the state's only slots parlor license, Penn National Gaming CEO Tim Wilmott addressed a jubilant crowd of harness racers and employees at Plainridge Racecourse, the future site of the Plainridge Casino.
"The fact that we're saving harness racing here in the commonwealth is what saved the day for us, and got us a jackpot!" Wilmott said Friday morning.
The road to this point has not been easy for Plainridge.
Last summer, the track's racino proposal looked dead in the water, after the Massachusetts Gaming Commission found its original owners unsuitable to host a slots parlor.
In came Penn National Gaming with a deal to buy the track — if it won the state's only slots license. That was right before a town-wide vote on the slots parlor passed by a 3-1 margin.
"They're the real winners in this decision," Wilmott said, referring to track employees. "The jobs get preserved, the track keeps operating, and we're going to offer 100 days of live racing here this year, and probably going to be operating live racing here for many years to come."
Wilmott plans to meet with building and design teams on Monday, with an eye toward setting a date for breaking ground.
The full 1,250-slots-machine site, he says, will be operational by the spring of 2015.
That's big news for the track's 120 employees.
"It's been struggling for years," said Donald Couture, a Plainridge worker who says he likely would not have had a job next week if the track had not won the license. "They told us back in September, we were in danger of closing then."
The license decision also has implications for the horse racing industry. There are dozens of horse breeders around the state who might have had to move elsewhere.
"This was an absolute necessity," said Bill Abdelnour, president of the New England Amateur Harness Drivers Club. "This slot parlor here was an absolute necessity so that we could sustain racing."
There is still the looming threat of a proposed ballot question that could derail all of the state's expanded gaming plans.
Still, Wilmott says that will not affect Penn National's operations going forward.
"We're not going to slow down our construction process with this threat out there," he said. "We have a lot of experience in political battles with gaming in other parts of the United States and we feel confident that we're going to get the right outcome."
Gaming commission Chairman Steve Crosby says if a repeal passes, the state would likely have to work out a way to repay licensing fees to casino and slots parlor developers: $25 million for Penn National Gaming, and $85 million for each casino license winner.
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