By George Brennan November 7, 2012
Rhode Island voters went all in to allow table games at an existing slot parlor, a move that could have implications for Massachusetts casinos, particularly the Mashpee Wampanoag facility planned in East Taunton, casino experts said Wednesday.
By an overwhelming margin of 71 percent to 29 percent, Ocean State voters approved adding Vegas-style table games, such as blackjack, roulette and craps, at Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I. The question required a positive vote in the host community, where it did even better, winning by a 3-to-1 margin, according to the Lincoln town clerk’s office.
Newport, R.I., voters rejected a similar proposal.
Table games give the Ocean State a huge jump on Massachusetts, where the state Gaming Commission has only recently begun accepting applications for two commercial casinos and a single slot parlor. Commissioners have said the first license will be awarded no later than February 2014, but it could take even longer for the Southeastern Massachusetts casino license, which is Rhode Island’s closest competitor.
That license remains in limbo because while the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe seeks to build a $500,000 Indian casino 40 miles from Twin River in East Taunton, its plans face significant legal tangles.
Gov. Deval Patrick and tribe leaders are renegotiating a gaming compact that was rejected by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The tribe is also seeking to have the federal government take land into trust as an initial reservation.
In the short term, Rhode Island will recoup some of the $200 million that goes out of state each year to nearby Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, Clyde Barrow, a casino expert at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said. Some Massachusetts gamblers are also likely to try Twin River instead of traveling all the way to Connecticut, he said.
It could also have implications for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which is beginning the process of accepting applications from potential bidders.
“It puts more pressure on them to speed up the process,” Barrow said.
The commission, which has the authority to put the Southeastern Massachusetts license out to competitive bid, will likely have to set a deadline for the tribe to meet its federal obligations, he said. Barrow predicted by early next fall it will be clear whether the tribe has the ability to settle its land issues and has renegotiated a successful compact.
But Stephen Crosby, chairman of the state commission, said the Rhode Island vote was expected.
“This has been anticipated from the day the Massachusetts legislation passed,” he said. “I don’t think it changes anything.”
More complicated, especially in light of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ rejection of the tribal-state compact, is figuring out just how the commission can ensure Southeastern Massachusetts can compete with the other two regions in the Bay State, he said.
“We do realize that we have to take stock here and try to figure out how is this moving and (if there’s) anything else we should be doing,” Crosby said.
It’s a policy issue that may require the Legislature and Patrick to get involved, he said.
Saverio R. Scheri III, CEO of White Sand Gaming, a consulting firm based in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, said any delay gives Twin River time to solidify its hold on the marketplace.
“Without a doubt, being earliest in the market is important and is a distinct advantage,” he said. “They can market and build a relationship with players. When a competitor opens, they can take action to make sure a player stays loyal to their casino.”
Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell issued a statement through spokeswoman Brooke Scannell saying he remains confident the tribe can compete.
“Our plans for a destination resort casino in Taunton have taken into account many different market factors, including existing and potential competition,” Cromwell said.
A representative from another gambling enterprise, KG Urban Enterprises, which wants to build a casino in New Bedford, also dismissed Twin River as competition, saying an “iconic” property on the waterfront would always draw customers.
“We have been bullish … on the Southeastern Massachusetts market since our first visit to New Bedford in 2007,” Andrew Stern, the company’s managing director, wrote in an email. “The legalization of table games at a racetrack across the border in Rhode Island has done nothing to change that. We’re talking about two completely different products, guest and player experiences, and quality of the property itself.”
As long as the commission makes sure casinos are located in areas that will keep convenience gamblers from crossing state lines, Massachusetts can compete, Barrow said.
“Just adding table games doesn’t make Twin River a destination,” he said.
But adding table games could boost Twin River’s cache among gamblers, especially if other amenities are added, Scheri said. “It creates a completely different experience for the players,” he said. “It almost feels incomplete when there are only slots.”