Track owners lobby for slots
Trotters returned to Plainridge Racecourse last weekend, but a horse race of a different sort was already out of the gate in Plainville. The track owners hope to expand their gambling operation to include the first slot-machine parlor in Massachusetts.
Within the last month, Plainridge president Gary Piontkowski formally notified the town of his company’s intention to seek a Class 2 license from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, and opened a public information office in downtown Plainville to answer questions about its $160 million plan to expand the racetrack.
“We are in the gambling business and we are taking a huge gamble on this,” said Piontkowski, a former state racing commissioner who built the harness track (the first dedicated track for trotters to be built in the United States in 50 years) more than a decade ago in anticipation of Massachusetts legalizing slot machines. This is its 14th season. “There is not another entity in the state this ready to pull a building permit.”
But some residents are unhappy about the proposal, and an informational forum organized by opponents is slated for Sunday afternoon at the town’s Senior Center.
Plainridge, one of just two horse tracks in the state, is banking on winning the one slot-parlor license authorized by the Legislature last year as part of its casino gambling package.
On April 11, Suffolk Downs, the state’s other racetrack, formally requested its two host cities, Revere and Boston, begin the application process for a full casino license.
Under plans already OK’d by the town’s Planning Board, Plainridge would build a 70,000-square-foot addition that would house 1,250 slot machines and other amenities on top of its racing grandstand, which also would undergo extensive renovations. A three-story parking garage for 1,000 cars also would be built.
Meanwhile, local residents are organizing to oppose the expansion of gambling in town.
Mary-Ann Greanier and Jennifer Crimmins Keen, who early this month said their No Plainville Racino group had about a dozen members, see slot machines as inviting only trouble to their town of 8,000.
They say increases in crime, gambling addiction, drunken driving, and traffic in general can all be expected where casinos and racinos (a nickname for racetracks with slot machines) open for business. At the same time, revenue from the state lottery that partially finances local government is likely to drop off, Greanier said.
“If you stand at the back of Plainridge and have a really good arm, you probably could hit my house, but it is not a case of NIMBY for me,’’ said Greanier, referring to the “not in my backyard’’ attitude. “I have opposed . . . expanded gambling here and across all of Massachusetts. That it is here in Plainville just brings it home.”
Keen said Plainridge has been a sleepy neighbor drawing little traffic, but the proposed expansion would attract so much traffic to back roads that some families have vowed to move away.
“I live on the main street and I worry,” said Keen, a mother of two. “I do not want my kids to go out to get the mail. I am not a helicopter parent by any means, but I think with people drinking all day and then driving, well, I just can’t let my children take that chance.”
Their group is petitioning Plainville to launch an independent cost-benefit analysis of the impact that the slot machines at Plainridge would have on the town. No Plainville Racino’s open house and forum is set for 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday at the Senior Center on School Street.
Meanwhile, much work lies ahead before Plainridge can even submit its application for a license to install slot machines. Earlier this month, the five-member Massachusetts Gaming Commission met for the first time and stated that requests for proposals for slot and casino licenses probably will not be issued until next year.
“We are a long way from that,” commission chairman Stephen Crosby said in an interview.
“There are people out there doing spade work now, which is perfectly acceptable, but they can’t start writing proposals yet because we haven’t put out the RFPs,’’ Crosby said, referring to requests for proposals.
The independent state commission also has yet to establish guidelines for negotiating the host-community agreements with potential slot parlors and casinos, said Plainville Town Administrator Joseph Fernandes.
“There is no blueprint to do this. There are no guidelines for us. In fairness . . . I don’t think they have any guidelines in place for themselves yet, either,” Fernandes said of the commission. “Plainridge has formally asked us to start the process and we respect that, but we frankly have to see what we are doing here.”
Fernandes said Plainville is likely to hire a consultant to handle talks with Plainridge and study the potential impact of expanded gambling and traffic before drafting the host-community agreement that ultimately would be voted on by residents. He said Plainridge has been a quiet corporate citizen that places little demand on town services but generates more than $500,000 a year in revenue for Plainville.
“To be candid, we need assistance with this process,” Fernandes said. “I and others could muddle through it, but why do so? There are companies that have done this in other locales. I am not going to reinvent the wheel.’’
Crosby said the Gaming Commission is operating under no specific deadlines to begin issuing licenses, but could be ready within six months to a year. He said the request for a proposal for the racino would have to be issued before any requests for a full casino.
Piontkowski has long viewed slots as the only way to save horse racing in Massachusetts, which under the new law would gain 9 percent of the gambling receipts to bolster race purses.
Plainridge, which resumed its live racing season Saturday, has lost horses and trainers to tracks in New York and Maine, where the purses are richer thanks to slot machines, Piontkowski said.
He said he is looking forward to the day that situation changes, not just for the investors in his harness track but for the horse farms and hundreds of families dependent on horse racing for their livelihoods.
“I work here full time. We are local. We are trying to save jobs, trying to save those 72 horse farms in Massachusetts,” Piontkowski said. “We have been here for 14 years watching paint dry. This is getting exciting. This is light speed.”
Jose Martinez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.