Resentment felt toward host town over racino plans

An architectural rendering shows a potential expansion at Plainridge Racecourse if it wins the state’s slot-parlor license.
An architectural rendering shows a potential expansion at Plainridge Racecourse if it wins the state’s slot-parlor license.
Plainridge Racecourse

Anger and resentment spilled over last week as Plainville officials and representatives from neighboring communities clashed over a proposed slot-machine parlor at Plainridge Racecourse.

Plainville is negotiating an agreement with Plainridge related to its plan to open a slots parlor at the harness race track, which sits alongside Route 1 and its interchange with Interstate 495. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission will be awarding just one slots-only license in the state, and the prospect of having it at Plainridge has rankled many residents and officials in North Attleborough, Foxborough, and Wrentham, who worry about the potential effect on traffic and public safety and whether their communities will be receiving any of the gambling revenue to help offset any problems that arise.

At a Tuesday night forum held in Plainville by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, Wrentham Selectman Michael J. Carroll said he still has concerns about how slots at Plainridge would affect his town.

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“I’m concerned about the impact on our Police Department. It’s not just traffic . . . This facility is less than a mile from our town line,” he said. “I’m concerned about mutual aid. How many times will our emergency responders be called because Plainville is occupied with something else?”

Jack Martin, a member of Foxborough’s Racino Mitigation Committee, said he is anxious that nearby communities would not be given the resources to address the effects of gaming beyond traffic predictions.

But Plainville resident Dale Bergevine expressed annoyance at those concerns.

“Take a serious look around. Gillette Stadium, Wrentham Outlets — I can’t get out of my yard,” he said, citing major traffic magnets in two neighboring communities. “All you towns here, looking for something, please, give me a break. You ought to be ashamed.”

In response, North Attleborough Planning Board member Richard McCarthy said, “We’re trying to assess how [slots are] going to affect us. That’s what we’re trying to learn here. We’re not trying to make a grab’’ at Plainville’s opportunity.

But there were still plenty of hard feelings.

“When all of the other communities did your projects . . . not one of you came to us” to discuss mitigating their effects on Plainville, said Selectwoman Andrea Soucy. “You never came to us. That really bothers me. That seems so hypocritical.”

Plainville Town Administrator Joseph Fernandes said that when the Legislature passed the bill expanding gambling in Massachusetts, it included measures to take into account the effects beyond the borders of the host community.

“If we haven’t done our due diligence, we’ll have to answer to the court of last resort — that is the gaming commission,” Fernandes said. But he added that Plainville’s neighbors need to keep traffic problems in perspective. “Does [Interstate] 95 back up all the way to 495 when Lowe’s has a sale on boards?”

A racetrack slots parlor, or racino, in Plainville is by no means a sure bet. Under the state’s new gambling law, Plainville officials and Plainridge representatives must reach an agreement on the local operation, and the proposal would then need to win approval from voters before the group could file its final application.

The 2011 state casino law authorized one slot machine parlor that can be built anywhere in the state, as well as up to three resort casinos in separate geographic areas.

Raynham selectmen have said they are still supporting a Raynham Park slots parlor, even after a consultant informed them that such a facility would generate about 100 to 200 fewer jobs than the 600 predicted by the developer.

Other rivals for the slots license include the Cordish Cos., and Chicago casino and real estate tycoon Neil Bluhm.

At the Plainridge racetrack Tuesday afternoon, a few patrons lined up at the rail to watch the harness racing. It was a fairly low-key event, with a little cheering and a little cursing as the horses crossed the finish line. Inside, there were a few more patrons watching simulcast results.

Outside was a sign of Plainridge’s potential future: construction vehicles and a gleaming new $20.5 million, 1,080-space parking garage.

At the Plainville Senior Center that evening, however, about 100 people crammed into the meeting room as the Gaming Commission gathered input from representatives of the neighboring communities.

The commission’s ombudsman, John S. Ziemba, said the state’s gambling law is unique because it provides protections for surrounding communities.

“We are very much trying to make sure to provide a very transparent process. At the end of the day, this is a big competition” among applicants, said Ziemba.

It cost the developers $400,000 to apply for a slots license. Of that fee, $50,000 is earmarked to help host and surrounding communities conduct impact studies, and negotiate mitigation agreements.

According to Ziemba, a community can ask an applicant for additional money for “technical assistance” should the $50,000 become exhausted. If the applicant refuses, the community can petition the commission to order the applicant to provide the funding.

Domenic Longobardi, Plainridge’s director of community relations and marketing, said he hopes to have a host agreement with Plainville officials finished by the end of this month, in time to hold an election for town voters to decide whether they want the parlor by Sept. 10. If voters approve, Longobardi said, Plainridge could be in position to be granted the license from the commission by mid-December, with the slots parlor opening in summer 2015.

In addition to the new parking garage at Plainridge, developers envision renovating the track’s 50,000-square-foot building and adding a 106,000-square-foot facility with 1,250 slot machines, as well as a restaurant, food court, and three bars.

Plainridge offers simulcast races 363 days a year, in addition to the harness season on its track from April through November, and is open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Longobardi said the operators are in discussions with the town’s Planning Board to shift to an operation open 24 hours a day, every day.

A study commissioned by the town predicts that a slots parlor would bring 2.2 million vehicles to Plainridge in its first year, and the traffic would eventually decrease to 1.68 million vehicles annually.

According to Longobardi, 84 percent of the traffic would use I-495 to reach Plainridge.

The $125 million expansion would bring 400 new additional full-time jobs to Plainville, along with 300 construction jobs, he said.