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Friday, January 31, 2014

The Fate Of Plainridge Will Be Decided In Four Weeks

On November 22, 2011 Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill calling for the licensing of three casinos and one slots parlor. There have been numerous twists and turns along the way, but I’ll focus on the single slots license, which is closely tied to the fate of harness racing in Massachusetts. The competition for that license has been, in contrast to the Marx Brothers style battle over the casino licenses, by the book and devoid of theatrics. Well, not entirely. In April Plainridge point man Gary Piontkowski was forced out when it was discovered he’d helped himself to more than a million dollars from the track money room over the course of a number of years. He claimed it was no big deal. Some believed this surprise development would doom the Plainridge bid, but Penn National Gaming of Pennsylvania swooped in and seized this opportunity to gain a foothold in Massachusetts, and—not that it was high on their priority list-- save the day for harness racing. The fact that they have extensive experience dealing with the confluence of gaming and racing seemed to impress the gaming commission.

With four weeks to go until the slots license is awarded there are three applicants still in play: Raynham Park, the Cordish Companies (Leominster), and Penn National. All three have been deemed suitable by the commission and they all received positive feedback from the local voters. Leominster is in the central part of the state, while Plainville and Raynham are both south of Boston, with the former being more to the west and handy to Rhode Island. Still, the towns are only 20 miles apart along route 495.

Cordish has the least desirable location of the three and I’d say they are the least likely to win out. Raynham was a dog track until that form of racing was voted out in a 2008 referendum; since that time they’ve been functioning as a simulcast center. Their problem is that the governor granted the Wampanoag tribe the inside track on the casino license for Southeastern Massachusetts. And their preference is to build on land in Taunton, the town adjacent to Raynham. They have been slow to get their act together and the vultures are circling; Foxwoods has joined hands with the city of Fall River—20 miles south of Raynham—and they will be submitting a bid. I assume the commission would prefer that the single slots parlor not be in the same general vicinity as a casino, and the fact that there are so many questions associated with the Southeastern Mass casino location is not a plus for Raynham Park. Plainridge, on the other hand, is not close to a potential casino.

While the commission has supposedly been shielded from political influence, most of its members were appointed by various politicians, so political clout can’t be discounted. Gary Piontkowski is a Republican—not a popular breed on Beacon Hill—and a pal of former US Senator Scot Brown. Not much leverage there. Raynham, on the other hand, is owned and operated by 85-year-old George Carney, who has been working Massachusetts politicians for most of his life and knows how to get things done. His family has owned Raynham Park for 50 years. Part of his property now holds a septic treatment plant and another area is used for recycling construction materials. Carney has been hanging on, waiting for a slots/casino license. This may represent a do or die situation for him, just as it does for Plainridge, where 446 folks holding jobs directly linked to harness racing would be out of work if that bid is rejected. The stakes are high.

Plainridge races 100 days a year, from April to November. George Carney owns the Brockton Fairgrounds, which has a track and a grandstand. As part of his proposal he has pledged to present harness racing there for a relatively brief period during the summer. His partner, Greenwood Racing, has agreed to put five or six million dollars into refurbishing the track and facilities. The fact that Plainridge would save harness racing from extinction in Massachusetts is a major selling point for that proposal and I’m sure Carney and his partners felt they needed to make a good will gesture to the sport, but I can’t see it making a difference.

Another strange angle to this story—after all, it is Massachusetts—is that a powerful citizens’ campaign to repeal the casino law has been launched, and they are determined to get a question on the ballot in November. The case is currently before the Supreme Judicial Court. Each applicant for a casino/slots license cut a non-refundable $400,000 check to the state just to get into the game, and all of them have spent millions more on architects, lobbyists, lawyers etc. How could the state tell them nine months from now that the whole thing was an April Fools’ Day joke? Caesar’s is already suing the commission chairman over the way they were dealt with in the Suffolk Downs debacle. The decision on the slots license is due on February 28. Plainridge, which has already built a garage and retrofitted their building, promised the commission they would have the slots parlor up and running within six months of getting the license. That would be a couple of months before the ballot question appears before the voters. How stupid is that? Do you tell them to just shut it down? So if the good government casino haters get their way chaos will ensue.

Putting that insanity aside, Penn National has garnered support from local businesses by signing agreements with them. For instance, instead of building a hotel, they will funnel customers to existing hotels in the area. The track has also developed strong ties within the community over the years, and signed on Doug Flutie to be the face of the operation. While the Leominster proposal is rootless and uninspiring, and the Raynham proposal is at the mercy of the casino that could wind up next door, there is really no downside to Plainridge. The highway infrastructure is unmatched by any of the other slots or casino proposals; the survival of an industry comes along with it as a bonus; and the company behind it is absolutely solid. Yes, I’ve made up my mind: the slots license will go to Plainridge.


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