2014-04-03 / Opinion

Casinos Are Dicey

Baseball season is again upon us, so it’s only fitting that the words of Yogi Berra come to mind when contemplating the prospects for yet another casino referendum.

“It’s like deja vu all over again.”

Or maybe it’s, “It ain't over ‘til it’s over.”

Whatever the case, it seems like just yesterday that Newporters voted down a proposal to introduce table games at Newport Grand. Now this week, with the news that a group of investors is eyeing the slot parlor for development, we can’t help but reflect on the last time we had this debate and the sense that even with a defeat, casino proponents would be back for another round.

Meanwhile, to keep the baseball reference moving, Massachusetts is playing hardball.

Let’s not fool ourselves: the resort-style casinos that are being proposed just across our border are akin to a declaration of economic war on Lincoln’s Twin River and our own Newport Grand.

And while Newport Grand, under the ownership of the Hurley family, has been an ideal neighbor, it will be hard to place such faith in a new ownership group.

Yes, the city benefits from gambling revenue and there are sure to be those visiting town who might play the slots during the course of their stay.

Yet much of the revenue realized by the city from Newport Grand actually comes in the form of property taxes. Regardless of use, the 24 acres that comprise the former jai alai facility are potentially more valuable than the gaming license associated with it. That could be especially true if the area were to be developed to lure high paying jobs and new businesses to the area.

We’ve written it before in this space: Newport – and Rhode Island as a whole – needs to learn to live without casino revenues.

At one point, casinos were seen as a silver bullet. And that may have been true when the market was new – and facilities such as Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun were islands to which gamblers would flock from hundreds of miles.

Today, however, the landscape has changed. The industry has grown up, and the Northeast may be approaching a saturation point.

In addition to destinations such as Atlantic City and Connecticut, New York, Boston, and Albany are all contemplating developing casinos to line state coffers. Philadelphia is also in the game with a trio of high-end casinos operated by outfits like Harrah’s.

Is there room for a boutique style casino in Newport? Perhaps. But there are other questions that also need to be asked. Is it the best use of the property? Does it fit with the kind of town that Newport wants to be? What impact will it have on property values? On local businesses? And what about crime?

For all of the time that our political leaders spend talking about growing our economy and making Rhode Island more attractive for young families and small- and medium-sized businesses, they tend to fall back on the old ways of doing things.

If gambling is the economic engine by which our leaders want to power the state, then we may be in for a short trip. Once Massachusetts’ casinos come online, the impact for Rhode Island’s casino market could be devastating.

Thankfully, Newport is not known for gambling; it is not our core business.

Casinos have been proposed for the city since 1977, when Goat Island was seen as an East Coast Monte Carlo. Later, Rose Island was slated for development. And more recently, in 2007, Newport was going to transform the city’s North End into a mecca for high rollers, complete with a -star hotel and name brand retail development.

Looking back on each of those plans brings with it a bit of relief. Newport, despite its big reputation, is at its heart a small town, and we are all in a sense stewards as well as residents.

City planners are in the process now of envisioning a new North End for the city. It’s a chance to remake an entire swath of our community into something better than it is today. Will it be a place filled with new office space and retail shops? Will it serve to attract high-tech industry to the city? And what benefits will our children enjoy from our decisions?

Central to that process, we need to ask ourselves what we want that to be – and whether a casino is part of that vision.

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