Plans to open the state's first slot parlor are moving forward at a harness racing track near the Rhode Island state line despite a vote in three months on whether to repeal Massachusetts' 2011 casino law, which made the project possible.
Penn National Gaming won the state's first gambling license for a proposed slot parlor at the Plainridge Racecourse in February and officially broke ground on the $225 million project in March. A construction crew of about 200 is working on the 100-acre property.
The parlor is being built beside the racetrack's current clubhouse and simulcast betting facility. It will feature about 1,250 slot machines as well as video poker and video blackjack terminals.
Jay Snowden, Penn National's chief operating officer, said the company is moving forward with its plans despite the November vote.
"It's a risk, but it's a calculated risk," he said on a recent site visit with company officials, local politicians and labor union leaders. "We're confident we'll prevail in November."
In the coming weeks, the Wyomissing, Pennsylvania-based company will begin taking applications for about 500 permanent jobs at the casino. By November, it expects to have spent more than $100 million on the project and to have the exterior construction finished. The facility, which will be called Plainridge Park Casino, is set to open next June.
Darek Barcikowski, campaign manager for the anti-casino "Repeal the Casino Deal" group, said Penn Nationalis overconfident. He noted that other gambling operators — notably MGM Resorts International, which was granted a casino license for its $800 million Springfield development — have chosen to wait out the November vote before breaking ground.
Casino supporters, however, see the construction activity at Plainridge as a critical piece in the run-up to November, providing voters a tangible example of the casino law's economic potential.
"As we head toward November, people will be able to see a symbolic representation of exactly what this particular industry can bring to Massachusetts," said Senate Minority Whip Richard Ross, a Wrentham Republican. "People should get excited. The economic development here is real."
Labor unions representing some construction workers on the site promise to hammer home that economic development message to voters in the weeks and months ahead.
"When you bring organized labor into a political fight, it's about troops on the ground," said David Fenton, business manager for the Local 223 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Penn National, meanwhile, has joined with MGM and Mohegan Sun, which is seeking a casino license to open a $1.3 billion resort outside Boston, to finance a recently formed political organization to defeat the ballot question.
It's called the Committee to Preserve Jobs Associated with Casino Gaming Law.
Plainville Town Administrator Joseph Fernandes applauds the company for moving forward with the project despite the uncertainty.
The town, which has just over 8,000 residents, stands to earn at least $1.5 million in annual property taxes from the slot parlor project, as well as roughly $2 million to $3 million a year in gambling profits through an agreement with Penn National that local voters overwhelmingly approved. That revenue, Fernandes said, will help pay for capital projects, such as a new town hall and public safety complex without burdening taxpayers.
"There's an awful lot at stake. I'm about as nervous as a cat in a roomful of rocking chairs on this thing," he said. "We're looking at getting a huge chunk of change for very little impact on (public) services."