Penn National Gaming is making a third try to win a gambling license in Massachusetts, securing an option to buy the state’s only operating harness track, Plainridge Racecourse, where the gambling giant will pursue a slot parlor license.
The move by Penn resurrects racino plans at the Plainville racetrack that appeared doomed in August, when the state gambling commission ruled the current owners of the track unfit to hold a slot parlor license.
“We look forward to being a part of the team working to save live harness racing in the Commonwealth, and the hundreds of jobs and thousands of acres of open space that the industry supports,” said Eric Schippers, senior vice president of public affairs for Penn, in a statement.
The option agreement is the marriage of a developer without a site and a site that badly needed a new developer. The deal was quickly negotiated in the days following an Aug. 20 town meeting in Tewksbury, at which voters refused to change town zoning and delivered a stunning defeat to a Penn slot parlor proposal off Interstate 495 and Route 133.
Plainville and track officials soon after confirmed that Plainridge had begun talks with Penn National. Under the option deal, if Penn wins the state’s sole slot parlor license and is also permitted to continue harness racing, the company would acquire the 89-acre track property at Interstate 495 and Route 1, about 5 miles south of Gillette Stadium. The track would be renovated and expanded to fit as many as 1,250 slot machines and other amenities. The financial terms of the deal with Plainridge were not disclosed Tuesday.
Schippers said Penn has long experience taking over and saving struggling racetracks. “We’ve done it at tracks just like Plainridge around the country,” he said in a Globe interview.
Penn was expected Tuesday evening to ask Plainville selectmen to allow the company to take over a casino agreement between Plainridge Racecourse and the town that states the terms under which the town would accept a gambling business. The deal was negotiated before the current track owners were disqualified from holding a slots license.
Penn representatives on Wednesday will outline their proposal to the state gambling commission in Boston. The commission has not said whether it would allow a new company to pursue a slots parlor at Plainridge, though the panel generally has encouraged the greatest possible competition for each of the licenses it controls.
There are three other competitors for the slots license: The Cordish Cos., planning a gambling parlor in Leominster; an affiliate of Rush Street Gaming, which wants to build in Millbury; and Raynham Park, the simulcast betting parlor and former dog racing track in Raynham. All three have passed their mandatory state background checks. Raynham voters have endorsed the Raynham Park proposal in a binding referendum. Residents of Leominster and Millbury will vote Sept. 24.
Penn has a very tight window to introduce the company to Plainville — residents are scheduled to vote next Tuesday in a binding referendum on whether to allow a slot parlor at the track. Penn officials will be spending time in the town and reaching out to members of the harness racing community before the vote, Schippers said.
Michael Perpall, president of the Harness Horseman’s Association of New England, said the organization will meet with Penn National officials on Thursday to hear about the company’s plans. “Obviously we’re delighted that they’re moving right along,” he said.
Penn’s state background check is due to be finished this month. The company probably would know by now if investigators had found anything that would cause Penn to be banned from the competition.
It was the state background check that originally tripped up Plainridge, a one-time favorite to win the slots license. The gambling commission disqualified Plainridge’s ownership group from holding the license after state investigators discovered that Gary T. Piontkowski, former track president, took roughly $1.4 million, a little at a time over several years, from the struggling track’s money room.
The commission’s decision to disqualify the Plainridge group seemed at the time a potentially fatal blow to the state’s harness racing industry. Plainridge officials have said for years that the track could not stay in business indefinitely without slots.
Alfred Ross, a major shareholder in the current Plainridge ownership, said in a statement that the deal with Penn is “hopefully . . . a good omen” for the survival of harness racing in Massachusetts.