Lawmakers hear testimony on expanded gaming

November 5, 2009
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Expanded gaming or full scale resort-style casino’s in the Commonwealth are not going to be as epidemic as crack was in the 1980s as some suggested at last week’s public hearing at the State House.

However, it is also not going to solve all of the state’s fiscal woes as others would suggest.

Somewhere in the middle is where the truth lies.

While testimony came from all sides and angles last week, all eyes here in East Boston were focused on the testimony of Suffolk Downs Racetrack.

The famed local horse racing venue has long desired expanding gaming as a way to sure up its struggling thoroughbred industry and hopes to file for one of three gaming licenses if Governor Deval Patrick’s bill to legalize resort-style casinos in the state is approved by the legislature.

But before Suffolk Downs is given ‘permission to print money’ as some would put it, the racetrack and its ownership team led by Richard Fields would have to concede to some hefty mitigation that would include solid job creation and roadway and infrastructure improvements.

At last week’s hearing, Suffolk Downs’ Chief Operating Officer Chip Tuttle launched the racetracks next round of salvos aimed at convincing the legislature that the racetrack is not only interested in a gaming license but is willing to create local jobs and improve infrastructure surrounding the track.

“Upon authorization, based on financial assumptions consistent with legislation before this committee, we would immediately invest up to $300 million in our existing facility and local infrastructure improvements,” said Tuttle. “We could be up and running within a few months with an initial development that could create 2,500 construction jobs and 3,000 new permanent jobs. In addition, an initial development at Suffolk Downs would create in excess of $100 annually in new, direct tax revenue.”

Today Suffolk Downs conducts 100 days of live racing, 362 days of simulcasting and processes over $200 million a year in wagering on horseracing, lottery and Keno. Some at last week’s hearing suggested that this is the exact reason not to allow expanded gaming in the state because it could lead to a compulsive gambling epidemic. Tuttle said the racetrack has a long history of helping gamblers in trouble and training its staff to recognize the warning signs–something Suffolk Downs would continue.

“We (Suffolk Downs) are licensed, regulated and monitored by the Commonwealth and we have a unit of the Massachusetts State Police on-site, year-round,” said Tuttle of the track. “We have a trained and dedicated workforce. We work closely with the Mass Council on Compulsive Gambling to promote its services for those in need and to train our employees.”

However, in the final analysis, the entire argument over whether or not to allow casinos will come down to how many jobs that they will create for out-of-work residents and how much revenue a casino could generate for the state coffers.

Currently, Suffolk Downs generates 2,334 jobs related to the horse racing industry throughout the state. This includes over 1,500 at the track itself, including direct employees – mutual clerks, maintenance workers, restaurant, cleaning, security and administrative personnel — as well as the owners, trainers, jockeys, exercise riders, grooms, veterinarians, blacksmiths and stable hands who care for horses and who work at the remaining working farms in Massachusetts where horses are bred, raised and boarded.

“Few people realize that Revere, where our barn area is located, leads the state in horse population, with over 1,000 thoroughbreds and work ponies during our eight-month racing season,” said Tuttle. “But the horses that live and race at Suffolk Downs come from farms in the western, central and southeastern parts of our state. It takes hundreds of people to care for these horses – people for whom this is more than a job but a way of life.”

Tuttle pointed out that the most successful racing facilities in the country have expanded gaming as part of their entertainment mix. In fact, 34 states now have some form of casino-style gaming and every racing state on the east coast from Maine to Florida benefits from revenue from expanded gaming with the notable exceptions of Virginia and Massachusetts.

“The truth is that Suffolk Downs needs expanded gaming to survive and to thrive in today’s environment both to compete with other tracks on the East Coast and to compete with resort-style destinations in our neighboring states,” said Tuttle. “The good news is that no site in the Commonwealth is better positioned for immediate gaming development and the benefits that it will bring, namely jobs, revenue and enhanced tourism, than Suffolk Downs.”

Built in phases over the next several years to accommodate the needs of the local community and to allow Suffolk Downs to make traffic and infrastructure improvements in the area, Tuttle said the racetrack would invest another $500 million for a fully developed resort-style destination casino on its property that would be integrated with horseracing, restaurants, hotels, shopping and entertainment to rival any gaming development in the world.

“By way of comparison, the two Connecticut casinos, even in the current economic downturn, employ 19,000 people, generate approximately $400 million annually for the state of Connecticut and spend $400-500 million a year to buy goods and services from local businesses,” he said. “The local business and tourism organizations, once skeptical of these developments, have become their biggest champions because of the millions of visitors a year that they bring to the area. We could do the same thing in Massachusetts, enhancing an already robust tourism business by offering an entertainment option available in other markets but not here.”

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