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Wagering on a better future

For Milford and Plainville, legislation to allow casinos and slot machines could bring vastly different benefits and challenges

The Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville is hoping to add slot machines to its gambling options. The Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville is hoping to add slot machines to its gambling options. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2009)
By Scott Van Voorhis
Globe Correspondent / May 6, 2010

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Less than 20 miles separates Milford and Plainville, but the towns are a world apart when it comes to the challenges they face as gambling legislation steadily advances on Beacon Hill.

Larger and more commercial, Milford could reap millions in revenue if plans materialize for a Las Vegas-style resort casino hard by Interstate 495. But the project could take nearly a decade to permit and build, while also potentially reshaping the town.

By contrast, the much smaller and more rural Plainville may see few, if any, outward changes if a provision that would add 750 slot machines to the longstanding Plainridge Racecourse makes it through the legislative gristmill.

Yet what could be a nice boost in revenue may come at the cost of hosting a no-frills slots hall, or racino, criticized by Governor Deval Patrick and others as likely to attract a lower-income clientele.

If gambling legislation passes on Beacon Hill, observers say, the two towns could end up seeing very different sides of the industry — the glitzier destination resort casino, aimed at luring high rollers, versus the racetrack slots aimed at a “locals’’ market.

“Everybody has an opinion,’’ said Milford Town Administrator Louis Celozzi, who regularly hears the topic debated when he is out around town. “I have heard both sides. At this point, the vast majority are supportive. They are talking about jobs and money.’’

The state Senate is expected to draw up its own legislation rather than take up the House plan, which would license two casinos in the state and up to 750 slots at each of the state’s four racetracks. The Senate’s president, Therese Murray, said she hopes to have a gambling bill on the governor’s desk by the end of the legislative session July 31.

The destination-resort model envisioned for Milford has struggled during the economic downturn, with many gamblers across the country opting against making a longer trip to the established casinos in Connecticut and Las Vegas, said the Rev. Richard McGowan, a Boston College economist and an authority on the gaming industry.

But with its diverse mix of entertainment venues, restaurants, and shops, the resort model might hold the most appeal in Massachusetts, with backers including Patrick and Murray.

Colorado-based developer David Nunes said he and his partner, Warner Gaming of Las Vegas, plan to spend nearly $680 million on the Milford project, slated for 200 acres next to I-495 between routes 85 and 16.

The first phase would feature a hotel, shops, and restaurants along with 3,000 slot machines and 100 table games.

Nunes said he envisions his Crossroads resort eventually expanding to 5,000 slot machines and a 1,250-room hotel, creating as many as 7,000 jobs.

“We are bringing on private investment funds,’’ Nunes said, adding he is close to signing agreements with “three entities or a combination of three.’’

Milford officials have submitted questions for Nunes and his partners to answer about the impact his proposed casino might have on the town. A formal proposal is expected within the next couple of months.

Plainridge is being considered for the much different racino model, a term for racetracks with slot machines. With few pretensions, racinos typically offer “convenience’’ gambling to local customers, who are likely to live within a short drive of the facility, McGowan said.

While the idea of racetrack slots has come under attack in Massachusetts as a bare-knuckles form of gambling, such criticism may be more of a local phenomenon, he said.

In other states, where racinos have thrived during the economic downturn, he said, they are seen as a way to save the horse-racing industry.

“It is a Massachusetts peculiarity,’’ McGowan said, describing opposition to racinos as “snobbish.’’

Plainridge, situated next to I-495’s intersection with Route 1, recently won approval from Plainville’s Planning Board to add a 75,000-square-foot building, said Town Administrator Joseph Fernandes.

The harness racetrack would need another amendment to its operating permit to add slot machines if they get the final green light from Beacon Hill, Fernandes said.

Under the version passed by the House, the track’s owners would be required to invest $75 million in the facility in order to add the gaming devices.

Gary Piontkowski, the racetrack’s president, did not return calls seeking comment.

“The racing business in Massachusetts for the last 10 years has not been favorable for the horse people,’’ said Michael Perpall, past president and board member of the Harness Horseman’s Association of New England, and who is involved with racing at Plainridge.

“We are at the end. If this bill does not go through, we will not survive.’’

While it’s not clear how many jobs would be added at Plainridge, Fernandes estimated it could be in the hundreds — a boon to a community where the jobless rate exceeds the statewide average of 9.3 percent.

“The fact they are going to employ people, with a 12.7 percent unemployment rate, that is huge,’’ Fernandes said.

Both projects offer the potential of a big tax windfall for their host communities, although, again, of much different scales.

Milford can expect to earn anywhere from $8 million to $20 million in taxes and negotiated payments if the Crossroads casino project moves forward, according to Clyde Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and an authority on the gaming industry. He said the town would likely work out an agreement giving it at least 1 percent of the casino’s overall revenues in addition to traditional commercial property taxes.

Milford’s town administrator said he couldn’t pin down how much revenue a casino could generate, other than it would be in the millions.

Plainville, on the other hand, is expected to take in $1 million a year in taxes from a redeveloped Plainridge racetrack. The town also plans to charge a fee based on the gambling revenue generated by the expanded facility, Fernandes said.

The town takes in about $600,000 a year from the track, Fernandes said.

Given the differences in size and complexity, both projects face dramatically different timelines as well.

If gambling legislation passes this summer, it’s conceivable that Plainridge’s racino could be up and running in a year, Fernandes said.

But in Milford, it could take the resort-casino’s developers two to five years just to line up its local, state, and environmental permits, said Larry Dunkin, the town’s planning director. Constructing the casino would take another two to three years, he said.

Milford voters also would have to approve the casino in a townwide election before the proposal could move forward, according to the state legislation now under consideration.

However, in both towns, possibly the biggest question is also one of the hardest to answer: What will these projects do to the character of the communities?

In Plainville, the lunchtime crowd at Don’s Diner predicted that adding slot machines to Plainridge would be a nonevent.

“I don’t think it’s going to be Vegas if they put in slot machines,’’ said Steve Devine, a Plainville resident and bank employee, having lunch with his wife, Kristin, and their three young children. “It’s off in its corner. You don’t really notice it.’’

But not everyone in town has such an optimistic view.

Mary-Ann Greanier, a freelance playwright who lives near the racetrack, said she fears that adding slots to Plainridge will bring dramatic — and very bad — changes to town, acting as a magnet for a range of undesirable businesses, including pawn shops and pay-day loan operations, she said.

“I am worried about the general cultural changes in town and increasing gambling addiction,’’ she said.

The Milford proposal may not have the same stigma to overcome. Still, the sheer scale of the Milford project would mean changes for the town, officials acknowledge.

Bob Clemente, owner of the Purchase Street Market and Midtown Family Fitness, said he’s all for the proposal.

A casino would bring more jobs and people to the area, filling empty apartments and generating more business for local shops and firms, Clemente said. While there might be some additional traffic, he contends the impact will be limited given the location of the casino in a relatively isolated area along I-495, and the new highway interchange to reach it that is included in the developer’s plans.

“My only concern is that it doesn’t happen,’’ Clemente said. “I think it will be a real shot in the arm for the area.’’

However, as in Plainville, there is considerable debate over whether the change a casino would bring to Milford would be good or simply overwhelming.

Jeanne Cutrona, who works in accounting at a local college, lives in a condominium complex just a mile down Route 85 from the site of the proposed casino complex.

Cutrona contends no amount of money would be enough to make up for the stress the casino will put on everything from Milford’s already bustling roadways to its schools and water supply.

“Irrespective of my feelings about casinos, which are not favorable,’’ she said, “I really feel that a casino in Milford would be detrimental to the town of Milford and to the greater MetroWest area, which is densely populated.’’

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