With two wild-card entries choosing to go after the lone slot parlor license yesterday, the fields are now set in the race for two casinos and one slot parlor in the Bay State (the third casino license is still pending an agreement with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe). Not surprisingly, the group led by The Cordish Companies officially declared its desire for a slot parlor. That group, PPE Casino Resports, has its sights set on a location at Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, north of Boston. Last year, Cordish opened a successful slot casino at Arundel Mills, a giant shopping complex south of Baltimore in Maryland. Arundel Mills is managed by Simon Malls, as is Liberty Tree.
Mass Gaming & Entertainment, headed by Neil Bluhm’s Rush Street Gaming, also said it was pursuing the slot parlor license, but has not formally indicated a location. That brings to four the number competing for the slot parlor, which also includes two pari-mutuel facilities, Raynham Park and Plainridge Race Course, although only the latter offers live racing.
Last week’s announcement that Foxwoods had partnered with Crossroads Massachusetts for a casino proposal in Milford means that both of Connecticut’s tribal casinos have decided that it’s better to join the hunt rather than sit on the sidelines. Faced with competition that will surely erode their revenues even further, each is rolling the dice in Massachusetts. Mohegan Sun is in the thick of things for the Western Massachusetts license, one of four bidders there.
It seems as though both tribal operators face an uphill climb. With two of the largest and most elaborate casinos in the world, both have had highly publicized financial problems and have seen combined slot revenues drop more than 24 percent from fiscal 2007 to 2012. That’s in sharp contrast to their closest competition, the racetrack casino Twin River in Rhode Island, where revenues increased by 39 percent over the same period.
Still, a casino in Milford gives the Gaming Commission an alternative to a casino in the immediate Boston area, where heavy hitters Caesars Entertainment and Steve Wynn are battling it out. The Commission plans to issue the slot parlor license first, but presumably it will consider the casino bids along the way. For example, it makes little sense to award a slot parlor license to Plainridge and then a casino license in Milford, just 15 miles away, especially considering that Twin River is less than 25 miles from either location. Having three major facilities in that close proximity would not seem to maximize the revenue generated for the Commonwealth.
Looking elsewhere, a slot parlor in Danvers would be just 15 miles from the two casino locations proposed for the immediate Boston area, so again that combination may not be the optimal scenario for the state. The Danvers location would also be hurt more by potential competition in New Hampshire, where there are new rumblings of casino legislation.
From my perspective, it seems logical to award licenses to the only two tracks in the state that still offer live racing – Suffolk/Caesars for the casino and Plainridge for the slot parlor. True, I have stated in the past that I think racing interests have used gaming as a crutch to prevent innovation in a struggling sport, but here I think it makes sense. The locations are already destinations for gaming activity and considerable infrastructure is already in place. The facilities have invested a great deal of money over the years, preserving jobs and keeping dollars flowing in the local economies. In addition, the economic impact of the horse industry offers considerable upside potential should the tracks win the licenses. While no one “deserves” a casino license – they have to earn it with their bids – I do think these factors should be important considerations for the Commission as it weighs the options.
And it just may be that the tracks are in the final race for their life. They have hung on by a thread in recent years, hoping to hit the gaming jackpot. Should they prove to be also-rans, it’s hard to say if they will stay in the game. While the casino legislation does provide a flow of revenue to tracks not receiving licenses, that might not be enough. In just about every other new gaming market, existing racetracks were included in the mix. The only example to the contrary over the past dozen years is Maryland, where the state’s two major Thoroughbred tracks were passed over in the casino licensing process. Laurel Park remains in business a short distance from the state’s largest casino to date at Arundel Mills, but is owned by the Maryland Jockey Club, also owner of Pimlico. The jewel in that crown is the Preakness, so while the tracks struggle outside that event, there are several vested interests in keeping racing going in some fashion. Massachusetts has no such jewel. Ghosts of great racing past just don’t count.