SE Mass. deserves casino gambling discussion

Economic stimulus badly needed in the region

THE ROAD TO CASINO gaming in Massachusetts has been long and winding, but nowhere as much as the place where it began – southeastern Massachusetts.

It’s been nearly eight years since the state authorized up to four gaming facilities in Massachusetts – three so-called category 1 casinos allocated by region and one category 2 slots-only facility.

However, southeastern Massachusetts has been fighting for a piece of the gaming pie for far longer.  Beginning in the 1990s, when the region was reeling from a decline in the fishing industry and a migration of traditional manufacturing overseas, political leaders and voters championed casino gaming through bills and referendums.

Little has changed today. No other region of the state needs more economic stimulus.  In Bristol and Barnstable counties, for example, the unemployment rate is 25 percent higher than the state average.  In New Bedford and Fall River, median income is half the state average, and one in five people lives in poverty.

Yet, despite being designated as one of the three regions allowed to host a casino, southeastern Massachusetts is no closer to getting one than when Fall River became the first community in the state to pass a referendum welcoming a casino two decades ago, followed quickly by New Bedford.

In the meantime, the Plainville slots parlor, MGM Springfield, and even Encore Boston Harbor, which faced a multitude of complexities and challenges, are all up and running – and generating tax and economic benefits for both the state and the communities in which they operate.  Adding insult to injury, Encore is sending shuttle buses to pick up gamblers in Plymouth County every 90 minutes.

MGM Springfield and the Plainville slots parlor alone have paid $371 million in taxes and payments to the state so far, with Encore generating $4.2 million in state tax revenue during its first week of operation.  Together, the three facilities have created 9,400 construction jobs and more than 7,500 permanent jobs.  Earlier this year, the town of Plainville cut the ribbon on a new $34 million town hall complex funded by revenue from the slots parlor.  In addition, surrounding communities have received hundreds of thousands of dollars for workforce development, infrastructure improvements, and other priorities.

The Legislature and the Massachusetts Gaming Commission should work together to get gaming in southeastern Massachusetts back on track.

To be sure, their task is not simple.  With new casinos in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, the gaming landscape has changed since the legislation was originally written.  The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s proposal under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act is in serious doubt but continues to be a variable.  It may be that the region and the state cannot support another large destination resort casino.  It may make sense to use gaming as part of a broader economic development project or strategy.  These are all issues for the commission to consider and decide.

Meet the Author

Thomas Norton

Former state senator and majority leader, Massachusetts Senate
One thing is clear, however: The time to move forward with a serious discussion about casino gambling in southeastern Massachusetts is now.  The hard-working residents of region both need and deserve at least that.  After all, we paved the way.

Thomas Norton of Fall River is a former member and majority leader of the Massachusetts state senate.