2014-10-09 / Front Page

Casino Proposal Expanded

By Barry Bridges

On the heels of recent controversies concerning the proposed casino at Newport Grand, including the unexpected change to a single question ballot, a lawsuit filed by opponents to halt the referendum, and the rejection of a host community agreement by City Council, the project developers continue to forge ahead and announced additional plans for the facility at a press conference on Monday, Oct. 6.

With less than a month remaining before statewide and local voters decide whether table games will come to the city, one of the project developers, Joseph R. Paolino Jr., was joined by Newport Summer Comedy Series president Joe Rocco as they announced their vision of the property as a possible home for the comedy performances and other events that will be displaced by the sale of the Newport Yachting Center.

Entertainment Element Emphasized

Paolino’s opening comments quickly reiterated his view that entertainment is a critical piece of his proposed enterprise. “I’m excited that Newport Grand will be transformed into a world class entertainment center,” he said. “It will not be strictly a casino; gaming will be a component. But we will also be adding a health spa, a theater with two to three thousand seats, an outside tent, and a skating rink that young people and families can enjoy.”

Paolino’s team displayed new renderings of the planned renovations, which, in addition to the remodeled building, now include a summer concert tent in the parking lot to the west of the entrance and an Olympic-sized ice skating rink on the south side.

“We want to show a partnership with downtown Newport,” Paolino continued. He described his intention of having trolley cars running between downtown and the proposed entertainment center at 150 Admiral Kalbfus Road.

Rocco’s comedy series lost its home base in September when the Newport Yachting Center was sold to the Peregrine Group, an East Providence real estate management firm. Colin Kane, a Peregrine principal, confirmed during a visit to the offices of Newport This Week that his company has no plans to continue with entertainment events under the tent and will focus instead on the parking and marina businesses at the property.

As to the series’ future in Newport, Rocco remarked, “We’re exploring a variety of options. One of those may be moving [to Newport Grand], whether or not it’s sold to new developers. Our meeting with Joseph Paolino was good, but there’s much more to be discussed.”

Paolino echoed Rocco in saying that he hopes to solidify an arrangement. “We haven’t completed a deal yet, but we’ve reached an intellectual partnership and will hopefully have a formal partnership later.”

He continued, “The Yachting Center has been a fixture of Newport for a number of years. I’m hoping that what we’re trying to do here can complement what has taken place. This will be an entertainment center for one of America’s best cities.”

Architect John Grosvenor of Northeast Collaborative Architects also commented on the new features of the potential project. He emphasized the sustainable design aspect of the design, with solar-powered renewable energy, geothermal heating and cooling, energy efficient lighting, and rainwater reuse. “It may be possible in the future to have the entire building be self-sustaining,” he said.

As to the repeated Yachting Center noise complaints lodged by downtowners, Grosvenor reported that decibel levels should not be an issue on Admiral Kalbfus since there are no residential properties other than the Malbone Estate abutting Newport Grand.

‘Slots’ Sign Camouflaged

As Paolino and Rocco offered their comments inside the Grand’s lobby, a huge mural depicting a rendering of the remodeled facility began to be hoisted into place over the west side of the building. The covering reminds voters of Paolino’s message to vote “yes” on Question One to make the reconstituted casino a reality. The immediate effect, however, was to begin to conceal the “Slots” signage that has appeared on the building for years, to the consternation of many Newporters.

“Consider this a campaign promise kept prior to the election,” said Paolino, referencing his pledge to remove the sign. As for the temporary mural, he said, “It’s probably one of the largest signs that has ever been put up in Rhode Island.”

He continued, “We want to create a beautiful facility. We also want to create jobs. The workers here are like a family, and my partnership wants that to continue. But if the referendum doesn’t pass, my group will not move forward with the purchase and the future will be very challenging for Newport Grand. Polling shows we’re in a close race.”

On that front, Paolino’s organization Jobs for Newport is planning an informational job fair for Wednesday, Oct. 15, at Newport Grand. A released statement trumpets up to 350 new hires and notes that the event will “highlight the many employment opportunities that will be available following the completion of the $40 million project to create the Newport Entertainment Center … In addition to gaming personnel and hospitality management positions, hiring will also take place for positions in the spa, the entertainment center and the spaces for exhibitions, large meetings and banquets. The public is invited to attend.”

Opponents Weigh In

Citizens Concerned About Casino Gambling, the organization leading the opposition to the Newport Grand expansion, was quick to issue comments in response to Paolino’s announcements.

“[This] publicity stunt is just another example of how they’re attempting to mislead and distract voters,” the group said in a statement. “Their actions continue to show that they’re most interested in delivering political spin to voters – not the welfare of our long-term economy and local businesses.”

CCACG also maintained, “The reality is that Newport has a strong tourism economy because of the focus on world-class sailing, arts and history. We also have strong partnerships with the Navy and a city that is working hard to develop forward-thinking projects like the Innovation Hub. A casino expansion would jeopardize Newport’s economic stability because the casino shops and restaurants would have an unfair advantage over our local businesses while increasing reliance on a failing industry.”

Lawsuit Briefing Under Way

Meanwhile, a civil lawsuit filed by three Newport residents asking a judge to declare that the casino referendum is unconstitutional is moving forward.

Legislation from the General Assembly’s 2014 session removed the casino question from the local section of the ballot. The plaintiffs assert that Rhode Island’s constitution requires both state and local referendums; they are suing the Secretary of State, seeking an injunction that would prohibit the initiative from going to the electorate.

Plaintiffs’ attorney R. Daniel Prentiss told Newport This Week that the parties will spend the month of October completing briefs which will outline their legal arguments for consideration by Superior Court Associate Justice Brian Van Couyghen. Prentiss has a deadline of Friday, Oct. 10, to file his brief, while the state has until Oct. 27 to respond.

Prentiss has previously said that even if the judge reaches his decision after the Nov. 4 election, which is likely, a judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor could nullify the results of the ballot measure if it passes. If the initiative fails on either the statewide or local levels, Van Couyghen could ask the lawyers for additional briefs on whether the lawsuit is moot or whether any issue remains to be decided.

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