2016-03-17 / Front Page

Newport Grand Imperiled

By Tom Walsh

This November, Tiverton voters get a chance to do what Newport voters twice refused to do – give their approval to new gambling in their community.

State Rep. John G. Edwards, D-Tiverton, does not think his town will let the opportunity slip away.

“Of course you never know,” Edwards told Newport This Week. “But I would not be surprised if it passed—and I would be surprised if it didn’t.”

If Edwards is right, a Tiverton vote to approve a new casino on the town’s boundary line with Fall River, Mass., would signal the beginning of the end for Newport Grand, the faltering slot machine haven on Admiral Kalbfus Road.

Twin River Management Group (TRMG), owner of Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I., also owns Newport Grand. TRMG plans to transfer the Newport Grand gaming license to Tiverton if that town’s voters, as well as voters statewide, approve.

At elections in 2012 and 2014 when Rhode Island voters twice approved Newport Grand’s plan to add table games to its existing slot machines, Newport voters said no. To expand gambling in this manner, voters must approve at both statewide and local levels.

Meanwhile, for the past several years both revenue and employment have slumped at Newport Grand as the slots parlor was handcuffed without table games. Even in decline, Newport Grand, which opened in 1976 as a jai alai fronton, remains a significant revenue source for state government. The state enjoyed more than $26 million from that revenue source in fiscal 2014.

Newport Grand also provides key revenue to the city of Newport. In 2015, the slots parlor accounted for $456,356 in revenues for the city. However, 10 years earlier, revenues from that source totaled $772, 901, according to Elizabeth J. Sceppa, city budget and finance analyst.

“Of course, the whole thing is contingent on Tiverton [and voters statewide] voting to support the move,” said Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano. She said with a likely 2018 target date for TRMG to open a Tiverton casino, “we just have to prepare by developing our economy to replace that revenue.”

She said there have already been discussions about how to make that happen. And, Napolitano added, the trigger for escalating those conversations will be the necessary voter approvals later this year.

When TRMG first announced its desire to shut Newport Grand and transfer its gambling license to Tiverton almost a year ago, state Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, issued a statement about the future use of the Newport Grand property.

“I have expressed my concern that, if the move to Tiverton proceeds, the future development of the present location is a critical issue for Newport. I am grateful for [TRMG’s] commitment to work with the state and the city to transform the existing site into another revenue and jobs generating area for Newport.”

She added that she was “grateful for their public commitment to a planning process to ensure the highest and best use of the land in Newport.”

In a more recent interview with Newport This Week, the Senate president maintained, “What I am most concerned about is the loss of jobs. My concern is also that the size and shape of the existing structure limits economic development use.”

She added that she is determined that the property not stand empty. “The building may have to be torn down,” she said. “In fact, I anticipate the need for the building to be torn down.” She said TRMG management has promised to help the city with this.

Paiva Weed said she’s already “begun global discussions about the future of the property. We have an opportunity to prepare a development plan and to work with the owners. They want to work with us and they won’t simply walk away. This will not be just a parking lot.”

In an unusual twist, state Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, D-Middletown, was one of only two senators voting against the measure setting up November’s Tiverton casino referendum. “I also voted against it in 2012 and 2014,” DiPalma said. “So I was being consistent.”

He added, “I don’t support the expansion of gambling. It’s a policy issue for me. I understand that the state relies on that revenue. But I believe that it actually adds little to the state’s economy.”

DiPalma said communities get what he called a “multiplier” effect from more traditional economic development activities. “You don’t get that kind of multiplier from gambling,” he said.

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