THE ONLY certainty about the much-discussed $600 million West Warwick casino proposed by Harrah’s Entertainment and the Narragansett Indians is that the status quo is poised to shift.
If, as expected, the House Finance Committee backs the casino concept, the attention will shift to the Senate Committee on Constitutional and Gaming Issues. House Speaker William J. Murphy (D-West Warwick) and Senate President Joseph A. Montalbano (D-North Providence) favor going forward with a referendum on the November ballot, so approval by the General Assembly seems highly likely before the legislature adjourns later this month. Beyond this, however, there’s little agreement about the latest pitch to massively expand gambling in Rhode Island.
Most fundamentally, opponents and supporters debate the impact of a venue that, in its initial phase, would be about one-third the size of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, the nearby Connecticut casinos that have powered respective rags-to-riches stories for the Mashantucket and Mohegan tribes. Supporters say the prospective West Warwick casino — which, unlike its Connecticut counterparts, would be owned by an out-of-state partner, Harrah’s, rather than a local tribe — would yield about $125 million in additional state revenue, thousands of jobs, and otherwise improve the Rhode Island economy. Critics, including Governor Donald L. Carcieri, pan gambling as a lousy form of economic development, and say a casino might hurt the existing revenue stream — one of the largest sources of state revenue — from the thousands of video lottery terminals at Lincoln Park and Newport Grand.
Meanwhile, the results of a survey released this week by Brown University political scientist Darrell West — showing that Rhode Islanders are closely divided about the prospect of a casino, with 47 percent of respondents in favor, 43 percent opposed, and 10 percent undecided — illustrate the stakes of going forward with a referendum. Proponents, noting how Rhode Island politicians have repeatedly stymied the Narragansetts’ casino quest, cite such a vote as a matter of fairness. Yet some opponents, noting how voters rejected a different casino proposal in 1994, nonetheless fear that millions of dollars in advertising could sway poorly informed swing voters. As Carcieri put it recently while talking with WHJJ-AM’s John DePetro, "Why would you put something on the ballot that is bad for our state?"
The governor’s not-so-rhetorical question suggests that regardless of whether people are pro-gambling or anti-gambling, they’ll use almost any fact or impression to support their underlying point of view.
As the Phoenix was going to press, representatives of Harrah’s were returning to the State House to meet with legislators, responding to a request for an improved offer. With a vote on the referendum pending in the House Finance Committee, Larry Berman, a spokesman for Murphy, said he expected the committee to approve the measure.
Even some anti-casino legislators have been supportive of the idea of giving voters a voice on the issue, although the proposal was initially seen as facing more skepticism in the Senate, particularly from South County legislators. "I’m leaning toward voting against the referendum," says Senate Minority Leader Dennis Algiere (R-Westerly). "I need to be concerned that the [revenue] numbers [from a casino] are accurate, and that the amount of money we’re making now is not in any way going to be reduced." Greg Pare, a spokesman for Montalbano, however, says the Senate president believes the referendum will be on the ballot in November. Pare indicated, though, that the devil is in the details, suggesting that the referendum question may not specify the West Warwick proposal.
As suggested by West’s poll, a referendum — should it occur — would seem to be up for grabs. Guy Dufault, the longtime lobbyist for the Narragansetts, believes enough voters would be supportive to overcome anticipated opposition by the Connecticut tribes. Still, even though the top-spending side usually wins referenda, some observers, noting how Maine voters overwhelmingly defeated a casino proposal last November after an estimated $10 million advertising blitz, believe voters would reject a casino in Rhode Island
The clashing views on the wisdom of a plebiscite can seen in how Carcieri, a Republican, and Lieutenant Governor Charles Fogarty, a Democrat, come to different conclusions, even though both oppose a casino and believe the state is already too dependent on gambling revenues.
"I do believe that we’ve reached the point where we have to make a decision one way or another, and in our law, the people have the final say," Fogarty told me recently on WPRI-TV’s Newsmakers. "I believe, if a question is put forward, the people are going to reject it overwhelmingly, because I think there’s been a lot of false promises made. And if we don’t do it, if we don’t have a vote of the people, I think there’s going to be frustration. We have to drive a stake in the heart of the casino, once and for all, and the only way to do that is to have the voters decide. They did it in Maine; I think they can do it here in Rhode Island."
Still, even the defeat of a referendum would not necessarily guarantee the absence of a casino in Rhode Island. Some observers, pointing to BLB Investors’ $553 million bid to acquire Lincoln Park and its British owner, think there’s just too much money to be made to avoid it. Meanwhile, the fast-changing landscape of gambling in southern New England can be seen in how Foxwoods is already embarking on its latest expansion.
A RAPIDLY GROWING stack of winning chips, as depicted during a commercial for Foxwoods, shows how the incredibly successful casino industry projects an image of fun and stylish entertainment. The fact that the house wins a disproportionately high share of the bets notwithstanding, imagery like this — frequently beamed throughout New England, for example, during cablecasts of Red Sox games — help to bring an estimated 30,000 visitors to Mohegan Sun and 40,000 to Foxwoods each day.
To proponents of a Rhode Island casino, the steady path of business to Connecticut is a squandered opportunity.
Boosters say the $600 million casino envisioned by Harrah’s Entertainment and the Narragansetts on 62 acres at the West Warwick Industrial Park would include 3000 construction jobs, 3200 fulltime jobs, a 500-room hotel, 3000 slot machines, 100 table games, five food and beverage outlets, a 55,000-square-foot ballroom, and 5250 parking spots. "The market is so underserved that Foxwoods and Mohegan would still do very well," says Dufault, asserting that the Rhode Island market for gambling is between $300 million and $400 million.
Although the proposed Narragansett casino would be about a third the size of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, and would initially lack an arena, theater, and some of the other amenities found at the Connecticut casinos, Dufault says the physical gambling space is the most important attraction for visitors. Unlike Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, which provide 25 percent of their slot machine revenues to the State of Connecticut, Harrah’s offer to the State of Rhode Island includes 25 percent of the initial $400 million in annual gambling receipts, as well as an additional $100 million over 10 years. Two percent of gross gaming revenue would go to the host community of West Warwick. The Narragansetts would receive 7.5 percent of the remaining gross gaming revenue — an amount estimated by Dufault at $15 million to $20 million a year — after the payments to the state and the town.
Certainly, the money would represent a windfall for the 2800-member tribe, most of whose members are scattered around Rhode Island, and would go for such purposes as elderly housing, educational aid, and fostering economic development. The Narragansetts would also enjoy job and vendor preferences at the facility. Dufault says the tribe agreed to accept the revenue sharing agreement with Harrah’s, with an option to buy the casino in its 20th year, because it reduces the Narragansetts’ financial risk.
Dufault describes concerns about the regressive nature of gambling as overstated. Although three-to-four percent of people are compulsive gamblers, "Most people view gaming like going to PPAC or a restaurant," he says. "It’s becoming a very popular form of entertainment," as evidenced by the ongoing growth of casinos in Las Vegas. Asserting that Foxwoods was the most popular destination when the Fraternal Order of Police held a convention last year in Providence, Dufault says it makes sense to have an alternative in Rhode Island. A casino would bring more people to the state, with a positive spin-off effect, he says, for such entities as the Trinity Repertory Company and other destinations. "A rising tide lifts all boats," he says.
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Issue Date: June 18 - 24, 2004
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