GREG DERR/The Patriot Ledger
|George Carney, owner of Raynham/Taunton
Greyhound Park, stands in a section of the park under renovation.
Raynham/Taunton and other Massachusetts tracks hope to emulate
the success of Lincoln Greyhound Park in Rhode Island, below,
with casino-style gambling.
Racetracks and some legislators say
slots in the tracks
would be a bonanza; others call it a ‘handout’
By TOM BENNER ~ Patriot Ledger State House Bureau
state's four racetracks are on the fast track toward convincing
at least some legislators that they are the quickest, cheapest,
easiest way to introduce casino-style gambling to Massachusetts.
While some call it an industry bailout or an outright handout,
top legislators say the four tracks have a big advantage over Las
Vegas-style casinos as the state considers expanded gambling as
a way to boost revenues.
“They have a leg up to the extent that for people who see
this as a solution to the fiscal situation, this would allow a fairly
quick source of revenues,” said House Minority Leader Bradley
H. Jones Jr., R-North Reading.
Industry experts doubt that the tracks can survive for long, citing
a decades-long decline in the popularity of racetracks. But if Beacon
Hill allows them to install slot machines, the tracks stand to become
thriving gambling operations - and their owners stand to make many
millions in the process.
exactly what happened in several other states that allowed racetracks
to add slot machines. Just over the Massachusetts border, the Lincoln
Park greyhound track in Lincoln, R.I., has enjoyed 10 successive
years of double-digit growth since slots were added in 1992.
Some Massachusetts legislators buy the argument that turning the
tracks into “racinos,” or racetracks with casino-style
slot machines, is a likely scenario if the state opts to expand
“They are established, they own the real estate and they
are generally in good locations - it’s not like anybody’s
averse to that in the community,” said Sen. Michael W. Morrissey,
D-Quincy, who co-chairs the committee that acts on gaming-related
legislation. “It’s the quickest way to get the cash
flowing into the commonwealth.”
Morrissey said he’d rather see racinos run by racetrack owners,
who are used to dealing with gambling regulations, security and
tax payments, than by newcomers in search of a host community, or
by the state itself.
“Do we as a commonwealth want to get into managing more personnel
and owning equipment, or do we want to sit back and take a percentage
of the take?” he said.
Under several proposals before the Legislature, the state stands
to pocket about half the gross income on slots at racetracks.
Massachusetts has two greyhound tracks, Raynham/Taunton Greyhound
Park in Raynham and Wonderland Greyhound Park in Revere. In addition,
there is the Suffolk Downs thoroughbred horse track in East Boston,
and the harness-style Plainridge Race Course in Plainville.
George Carney, owner of the Raynham/Taunton track, is already making
renovations in the hopes that Beacon Hill approves slot machines
“Eventually somebody’s going to have to see light at
the end of the tunnel,” Carney said.
Ten years ago, Raynham/Taunton did $240 million a year in business,
and paid $20 million in taxes. Today business is down by about half,
and the track generates between $5 million and $7 million in taxes,
GARY HIGGINS/The Patriot
Carney said his track can be converted into a racino in about three
months, while approving, building a licensing a Vegas-style casino
could take five years or more. In addition, racinos draw a tamer
crowd than full-fledged casinos, with their high-roller areas and
table games, Carney said.
“The average persons playing the slot machines are the old
women, along in years, who take a bus and it’s the only out
they have,” he said.
Wonderland owner Charles Sarkis makes far more from his thriving
Back Bay Restaurant Group (which includes Joe’s American Cafe,
Atlantic Fish Company, Paparazzi and Abe & Louie’s steakhouse)
than from his greyhound track in Revere. But he sees huge growth
potential with slots, and says instate businesses can be trusted
to usher casino-style gambling into the Bay State.
“The tracks are all owned by Massachusetts businesspeople,
we’ve been here, we pay taxes and we’re large employers
in the community,” Sarkis said. “People focus on making
the tracks rich or something, that’s not what we’re
talking about. We’re talking about economic development, we’re
talking about paying the commonwealth enormous amounts of money
immediately and creating thousands and thousands of new jobs.”
Bob O’Malley, general manager of Suffolk Downs, estimates
that each racetrack will have to invest between $35 million and
$50 million to add slots.
“You can’t just plug this things into the wall,”
said O’Malley, a Milton resident. “That’s the
range of spending that’s going to happen, if you’re
going to do this right and create an atmosphere that people are
going to like.”
O’Malley believes racinos will detract less from the state
Lottery than full-fledged casinos.
“Most of the studies point out if you put them into the existing
destinations, you really don’t bother the Lottery,”
Plainridge Race Course co-owner Gary Piontkowski argues that Massachusetts
is losing money to Connecticut’s two casinos and the two slots
emporiums in Rhode Island, Lincoln Park and Newport Grand Jai-Alai.
“You can raise taxes or raise revenues,” he said. “At
this point we’re all taxed out. And this is a source of revenue
that’s being chewed up by Connecticut and Rhode Island.”
The Rev. Richard McGowan, a professor of economics at Boston College
who served on the recently concluded gambling study commission,
noted another political plus for slots at the race tracks: two of
the tracks, Suffolk Downs and Wonderland, fall within the district
of Senate President Robert Travaglini, an East Boston Democrat.
“I think racinos are probably the first thing that would
happen,” said the Rev. McGowan.
The world’s biggest casino conglomerates such as Park Place
Entertainment and Harrah’s are lobbying lawmakers to approve
full-fledged casinos. While they agree that racinos are a quick
fix, casino industry sources say racinos lack the growth potential
of casinos. They also argue that the state should take the highest
bidder, with some casinos offering upfront money money in exchange
for a casino license.
Larry Rasky, a local spokesman for Las Vegas-based Harrah’s
casinos, acknowledges that racinos will generate quick revenues,
but he sees a place for full-fledged casinos as filling a different
niche, and generating more jobs and revenues.
“A company like Harrah’s is going to invest up to half
a billion dollars if it comes into Massachusetts to launch this
industry and put a major hotel complex alongside a casino,”
Rasky said. “You’re just not going to get that kind
of investment if you put slots in the tracks.”
Meanwhile, western Massachusetts lawmakers say it would be unfair
to give slots to the racetracks - which are all in eastern Massachusetts
- without allowing a casino operation out west.
Rep. Daniel Bosley, D-North Adams, said allowing racetracks amounts
to a handout in the short term. But in the long run, he said, a
racino cannot compete with a full-fledged casino.
“It makes those guys instant millionaires, but there’s
a bigger consideration: Is it good social policy and good fiscal
policy?” said Bosley, House chairman of the Legislature’s
Government Regulations Committee, which decides the fate of gambling-related
legislation. “If you do racinos, you’re going to do
full-blown casinos, and that eventually hurts racinos, they’re
not going to able to compete.”
Carey Theil of Grey2K USA, which sought to ban greyhound racing
in Massachusetts three years ago, said permission to add slots to
the state’s greyhound tracks amounts to an industry bailout.
“When the economy is strong, the dog tracks ask for tax breaks,
and when the economy is weak, they ask for slot machines,”
Theil said. “These wealthy dog track owners are constantly
asking for handouts.”
Proponents of slots at racetracks include Rep. David L. Flynn,
D-Bridgewater, who estimates that revenue from the slot machines
would pump an additional $450 million to $500 million into the state’s
coffers. He is the sponsor of legislation allowing 1,250 slot machines
at each of the state’s four racetracks.
Rep. Ronald Mariano, D-Quincy, also said racinos have an immediate
appeal as the state considers expanded gambling: “I think
that’s definitely coming, at least with the slots at the tracks.
You don’t have to do as much. It’s a quicker return.”
Paul Kelley, a co-owner of Ryan Iron Works, which sits next to
the Raynham/Taunton track, said he’s all for the track expanding
into a racino.
“I’m for it. They’ve got a business to run,”
he said, adding that he expects that the coming of commuter rail
service to the area would alleviate any traffic concerns.
Should the state approve slots at the four racetracks, existing
federal law could allow the state’s only federally recognized
Native American tribe, the Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head, on Martha’s
Vineyard, to open a similar establishment, Morrissey said. However,
the tribe would need legislative approval to open its own racino
outside of Gay Head, Morrissey said.
Tom Benner may be reached at email@example.com
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