2014-11-06 / Front Page

Casino Rejected Again

By Barry Bridges

After months of impassioned arguments from both sides of the issue, Newporters rejected the much-discussed proposal by developers Joseph Paolino, Peter de Savary, and Paul Roiff to add table games at Newport Grand.

At the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 4, Rhode Islanders as a whole gave their support to Question 1 by almost 40,000 votes, but Newport residents nixed the measure by a 1,000-vote margin. Since the state constitution requires both statewide and local approval for a casino expansion, Tuesday’s results mean that the envisioned $40 million expansion will not materialize.

A related referendum, Question 2, which would have restricted changes in the casino’s location without approval from Newport’s electorate, passed both statewide and locally.

The outcome was the same as that of a similar ballot initiative in 2012, but more opposing votes were cast this time. Two years ago, table games were also approved statewide, but Newport residents defeated the measure by approximately 500 votes.

The most recent proposal has been among the most contentious and talked about topics of 2014. Supporters said the project would create jobs and generate needed revenue for the city, while opponents, led by Citizens Concerned About Casino Gambling (CCACG), countered that it would drain jobs from downtown, contribute to social problems, and damage the city’s established brand.

In an online statement Tuesday night, CCACG welcomed the election outcome. “Today Newporters had an opportunity to weigh in on an issue that remains critical to the future of our city. The voices of Newport once again loudly declared their interest in a brighter economic future rather than depending on an outdated and failing state-run gambling model. This vote reminds Rhode Islanders that the state can do better than stand on the shoulders of countless gamblers, who waste millions in economic potential on gambling each year. This David and Goliath battle proves that Newport’s tight-knit community trumps special interest money.”

Meanwhile, Paolino and his Jobs for Newport organization gathered with proponents at the Mainstay Inn across the street from Newport Grand.

Paolino talked with Newport This Week about the results. “I won’t critique our efforts, except to say that I still have an interest in buying this facility. I respect the people of Newport a great deal, and I understand the passion of the other side. There’s a bit of a divide right now, and Newport needs to be brought together.”

Paolino expressed concerns over the slot parlor’s current employees, as he has repeatedly said that declining revenues, combined with a defeat of Question 1, could spell doom for the jobs already there. “I care about the people who work here,” he said. “Some of the people who were against us didn’t care about the workers, while others didn’t want to be known as a city with a casino. But I would like to sit down with them. I don’t want 175 people to lose their jobs. I always enjoy working and bridging the divide with the opposition.”

“For the love of Newport, we should all work together,” he concluded. “This is a small town, and we’re all going to bump into each other. We should all be fond of the color gray, where we can all find a common bond.”

Since the City Council’s decision on May 28 to ask the legislature to put the question on the ballot, the path to Election Day was filled with twists and turns. There was considerable wrangling over a proposed host community agreement that was ultimately rejected by City Council, as well as a possible relocation of Yachting Center events to the Grand property and allegations of campaign finance irregularities.

Opponents were also upset when it was revealed in August that the General Assembly departed from previous practice and was not requiring a local ballot component on the measure. Legislative leaders said that the intent was to allow Newport voters to more simply speak on the issue through the statewide portion of the ballot like other Rhode Islanders. That explanation, however, did not quell criticism that the action was unconstitutional.

In response, three Newporters filed a civil lawsuit in September against Rhode Island Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis to block the referendum. While the suit is still winding its way through court, plaintiffs’ attorney R. Daniel Prentiss has said that the defeat of Question 1 may mean that it is declared moot. That will be determined in coming days by the presiding judge.

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