Ballot Question 3: Voters Decide Casino Fate

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In the town of Plainville, five miles from Foxborough's Gillette Stadium, construction is almost finished on a $225 million slot parlor set to open in June.

The 15-year-old Plainridge Racecourse was facing extinction due to smaller crowds, until Pennsylvania casino developer Penn National Gaming won the state's only slot parlor license.

"Penn National stepped in and saved us from oblivion," said Bob Bogigian, a board member of the Harness Horseman's Association of New England, which advocates on behalf of the harness racing industry. He said there'd be no 2015 racing season without the slots parlor.

He adds the track might not have opened this year had Penn National not won the license.

"Last year was a very depressing year for us. We thought we were done," Bogigian said. "Now people know we're getting a casino and they're out there and it reminds me of the years gone by."

Construction on the slots parlor started in the spring, though it may never be allowed to open. That's because in three weeks voters will decide whether to ban casinos and slots parlors. Question 3 on the Massachusetts ballot would repeal the state's expanded gambling law, passed in 2011.

That law allows for the licensing of three casinos and one slots parlor around the state. Three of the four licenses have been awarded.

Penn National Gaming won the state's only slots parlor license, while MGM Resorts and Wynn Resorts plan to open casinos in Springfield and Everett, respectively.

Gaming regulators have not decided on a casino license in southeastern Massachusetts.

"[When a casino opens,] crime goes up dramatically, small businesses are impacted, and nothing new ever gets built in those areas," said John Ribeiro, chairman of the anti-casino group Repeal the Casino Deal.

Ribeiro argues the state doesn't need casinos. He says the arguments gaming supporters use, that casinos will bring jobs and economic development to areas that desperately need them, are false.

"Every place that it's been, it's done the exact opposite," he said. "When you ask people, 'Oh, you went to Foxwoods, or you went to Mohegan Sun, what other business did you visit?' There are two answers: Dunkin' Donuts and the gas station. And that's it. People do not spend money outside of the casino."

The group set up to protect the gaming law is focusing on jobs. It's right in the name — the Coalition to Protect Mass Jobs.

It argues that three casinos and one slots parlor will create 10,000 permanent jobs in Massachusetts, on top of 6,500 construction jobs.

Penn National Vice President Eric Schippers said making sure people understand potential casino benefits has worked to defeat similar repeal measures in other states.

"We have been in situations before where gaming acts have been challenged, and we have been successful through a campaign largely of just education," he said. "Letting people understand what's at stake here. And what is at stake is jobs, revenues for the commonwealth and the programs they support."

Schippers called the decision to start construction in Plainville before the November election a calculated risk. Still, Penn National has not been shy about spending money to make its case. It donated $1 million to the pro-casino campaign in the last two weeks of September.

Repeal the Casino Deal raised just $29,000 in the same period and was outspent by a nearly 60 to 1 margin.

Still, Ribeiro thinks casino opponents can be successful. He points to community referenda that have rejected casinos despite massive spending by the casino industry.

"You saw all these casino proposals fall all around the state. Palmer, East Boston, Milford," he said. "One by one, the more people learn about casinos, the less they want to have them anywhere near them."

Recent polls show the anti-casino campaign has an uphill climb. A WBUR poll released Wednesday finds those in support of casinos with an 18-point lead, 54-36.

But even if casino opponents fail in November, Ribeiro says they'll try again in 2020, after a required six-year waiting period.

In the meantime, construction continues at Plainridge Racecourse. Construction on two casinos in Springfield and Everett is slated to start shortly after the November election.

This segment aired on October 16, 2014.

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Jack Lepiarz Reporter and Anchor
Jack Lepiarz was a reporter and anchor at WBUR.



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