2015-11-19 / Front Page

Grand's Future Uncertain

By Barry Bridges

The future of Newport Grand became murkier on Monday, Nov. 16, when the Tiverton Town Council voted 6-1 to request that the General Assembly place a casino proposal on the November 2016 ballot.

Twin River Worldwide Holdings wants to construct a casino in Tiverton and transfer its existing license at Newport Grand to that facility. However, the plan requires statewide and local voter approval. The Tiverton council’s action to ask state leaders to move the matter to the ballot was an important piece of that process.

Twin River Chairman John Taylor Jr. has previously said that even if all contingencies are resolved in his company’s favor, the casino would not open before the summer of 2018. He has also said that current Newport employees would have an opportunity to assume similar positions in Tiverton.

During Monday’s public hearing at Tiverton High School, nineteen residents voiced their thoughts about the project. With Twin River reporting that the town will be “guaranteed” $3 million in annual gaming revenues through state legislation, with an additional $1 million coming in from other sources such as property and hotel taxes, a theme of tax relief quickly emerged.

Barbara Pelletier said, “Tiverton has been offered an opportunity to expand our tax base, and we should welcome that.” She added that the proposal comes at an important time when the town is faced with many financial obligations. “We need more money. Our homeowners are stretched to the maximum and we are still waiting for the ‘great miracle’ from the industrial park.”

Agreeing that taxpayers need a break, Robert Lachapelle of 22 Pierce Court told the council, “Let’s open our eyes and do something good for Tiverton.”

Tiverton School Committee Chair Sally Black concurred. “I know only one thing: The Town of Tiverton is amazing, but we need tax relief. Please put this out to the people.”

Others countered that tax rates would most likely be unaffected. “People of Tiverton, you need to wake up. We’re putting lipstick on a pig,” said Christine Celone. “There is no way this will benefit the people of Tiverton. Your taxes are not going to go down…. It would be a shame for a casino to go in this bucolic beautiful town.” At one point Councilor Joseph Sousa seemed to acknowledge Celone’s argument, remarking that “As people have said, I know we’re not going to get tax relief, but it’s going to help.”

Those approaching the podium also raised objections such as increased traffic, local businesses impact, moral considerations, and the town’s image.

But while there was a difference of opinion on the wisdom of welcoming gaming to town, the mood among the approximately 200 attendees was that the fate of the proposal should be determined by the electorate. Richard Miozza of 55 Watuppa Ave. summed up the feeling of many when he said, “At least give the citizens the opportunity of saying yes or no.”

As the council took up its discussion, Sousa voiced his concern that revenue assumptions can be altered by the legislature.

“At any given time, they could decide to reduce our share,” he said. “I would like to see in writing that the town will be guaranteed $3 million.”

“Joe, it has always been my understanding that any legislature can change what others do… so what you are really asking for is a constitutional amendment,” said Councilor Jay Lambert.

“We are not here to change the constitution,” offered Anthony De- Sisto, the town’s land use attorney. “We are simply following the constitution to get local and statewide approval.” He agreed with Sousa that legislation could possibly be amended later on, but added that a host community agreement could give the council more confidence in its dealings with the state.

“Ultimately, this is a state facility and the revenues are set by statute,” said DeSisto. “You can never something of this nature that is not governed by legislation.”

Responding to this dialogue, Council President Denise deMedeiros said, “We will work diligently to get the best bang for our buck on this deal.”

Lambert added, “We have one year during which the state legislature will have every incentive to [work with us] while they make sure they’re getting their share of revenue.”

“Your leverage is that it has to be voted on,” said DeSisto. “If the legislation is bad, the public will vote accordingly.”

In the end, the council homed in on the limited nature of the action on the agenda. “We are all aware that what is before the council tonight is to put the question on the ballot,” said Council Vice President Joan Chabot. “I think the overwhelming opinion is that the people should decide… and that basically gives everyone a whole year to decide whether they are for or against it.”

Seemingly agreeing with that sentiment, councilors decided to cut off debate and put the matter to an immediate vote. Councilor Brett Pelletier was the lone holdout, but did not elaborate on his reasoning.

Final architectural plans for the Tiverton facility had been unveiled a week before the council’s Monday vote and depict an 85,000-square-foot gaming hall with 1,000 slot machines, 32 table games, a sit-down restaurant, and a bar with entertainment. The site would also feature an 84-room, three-story hotel.

As for the potential fate of Twin River’s property on Admiral Kalbfus Road in Newport, company spokesperson Patti Doyle told Newport This Week, “If the referendum is successful and if a new casino in Tiverton is built, we have committed to working with the City of Newport and the state on finding the highest use for the building and the property. Further, if it’s determined that the best outcome would be to demolish the building, and no buyer is in place, we have committed to doing that as well.”

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