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Proposed Horse Track And Slots Parlor In Wareham Would Need Help From Beacon Hill03:22
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Suffolk Downs, seen here in 2014, held its final live races in late June. A developer wants to bring horse racing to Wareham. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Suffolk Downs, seen here in 2014, held its final live races in late June. A developer wants to bring horse racing to Wareham. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A local developer is calling on legislators to revisit the state’s gaming law in order to build a $300 million horse racing and gaming facility in the southeastern Massachusetts town of Wareham.

The Wareham Park proposal would be smaller than what the law allows to be built in the region. Still, it would be the first and only casino to be built in the South Coast area since the law went into effect, and it would bring back horse racing to the state. (Suffolk Downs held its final live races in late June.)

But multiple hurdles lie ahead before any hooves start kicking up dirt.

Those challenges include the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s plan to build a $1 billion casino in Taunton, and the fact that the Legislature would need to change the law to allow the type of casino being proposed for Wareham.

Tom O’Connell, the developer behind the proposal, says his team’s market research shows that the Southeast market is better fitted for a Category 2 gaming facility, which means slot machines and other electronic games.

Standing Tuesday morning at a golf course he developed in Quincy, he said he has taken on difficult projects before.

“People told us here at Granite Links that golf was dying. 'Why would you ever build a golf club? That's crazy.' And what we said is: ‘We can rethink the business model. We can make it fun and exciting and safe for people to come here.' I think we should take the same type of approach right down there in Wareham,” he said.

The Wareham Park proposal calls for the development of a 275-acre parcel off Route 25, with a hotel, entertainment and electronic gaming facilities.

But it’s the idea of a mile-long racetrack — the idea of reviving an iconic American past time in Massachusetts — that could give Wareham Park a favorable hearing in the Legislature.

Experts say the industry's financial viability is a thing of the past, and new tracks are often tied to gambling operations — known in the business as “racinos."

Boston College gaming industry expert Richard McGowan says the proposal is about a developer who wants to get into casinos who’s using horse racing to make his proposal more viable.

“Most gambling supports some kind of good cause," he said. "So for instance, the [state] Lottery, the money goes to local towns and cities. ... So this is a case where you're using the casino in order to support the horse racing industry in Massachusetts.”

If the proposal gets approved, McGowan says the depletion of the thoroughbred industry in Massachusetts could mean even a casino-supported racing operation could have a tough chance at succeeding.

But people involved in the thoroughbred horse industry say they’re elated at the possible revival.

“We need a racetrack,” said Lee Loebelenz of Westport, a thoroughbred breeder who says it’s hard to quantify how much the state lost with the end of racing at Suffolk Downs. “A lot of people center on the [economic impact of] the track. [The horses] spend a short amount of time at the track, then they go back to the farms to rehab or whatever and those farms are throughout the state, and they're supporting the communities they're in.”

This segment aired on August 20, 2019.

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Simón Rios Twitter Reporter
Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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