Opinion

Plainridge’s Slow Start Prompts Questions

Editorial

This is not the way Massachusetts intended its long-anticipated foray into casino gambling to go.

After opening to considerable hype and huge crowds last summer, the Plainridge Park slots parlor in the southeast corner of the state is clearly struggling.

All you need to know is that gambling marketing consultants hired before Plainridge opened predicted as much as $300 million in revenues the facility’s first year. The worst-case scenario, they said, was $210 million. But in November, the Massachusetts state budget office cut that figure to $160 million. That’s right, half of what the experts forecast.

And that was before a holiday season at Plainridge that was even slower than what the industry usually sees for that time of the year.

Theories abound for this slow start — the facility is too small and doesn’t have table games; the payouts are not as high as other casinos (even though they’ve moved upward); it doesn’t have as much to offer as the nearby Twin River Casino in Rhode Island; that its intended audience — mostly seniors — is too limited.

All of this may well be true, but there might be much more to this story, and it doesn’t bode well for Springfield and the $950 million MGM casino slated to open in the city’s South End in 2018.

Indeed, the very slow start at Plainridge might be ample, and very disturbing, evidence that Massachusetts is getting into casino gambling way too late, that legislators might have erred when they approved two resort casinos and a slots parlor — with the possibility of a third resort casino — and that the Commonwealth was naive to think that neighboring states would sit by idly and watch Massachusetts take gamblers and revenue from them.

Yes, it’s early in the game, and, yes, Plainridge is just a slots parlor, or so we’ve been told by the braintrust at MGM many, many times, but there is something very unsettling about Plainridge’s start, and to explain, we need to go back roughly three and a half years, to when the proposals for casinos started to take shape, especially in Western Mass.

That’s when one company decided it was prudent to plunk down $16 million for the former Westinghouse complex in East Springfield, along Route 291. That proposal never got out of the gate, let alone to the first turn or the second.

That’s also when a proposal for a parcel near Mass Pike exit 8 in Palmer, one that had already been on the table for a few years, was gaining steam as a viable alternative to the urban casinos blueprinted for Springfield. But it never moved past the local-vote stage, even in a community desperate for jobs and economic development.

We bring up those episodes, among many others, because, from the beginning, one of the assumptions area residents and elected officials have been making is that those in the casino industry must know what they’re doing. Those failures, and Plainridge’s slow start, have to make us wonder: do they really know what they’re doing?

Lance George, general manager of Plainridge Park, argues that his facility’s start is following a typical pattern when it comes to facilities (at least the first few parts) — fast start, then a slowdown, then a gradual upward climb. He told BusinessWest (see story, page 6) that the state and the press should be focused on the long term and not tracking revenues on a monthly basis, looking for patterns and reasons to explain them.

We hope he’s right. Again, these are the people who have been in the business, people who, we are told, know what they are doing.

But the same can be said for those who made those original revenue projections for Plainridge. And that’s why the start to the casino era in Massachusetts is a cause for concern.

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