Scott MacKay: RI needs to take a strategic look at gambling

Providence, R.I. – There is no mystery to what an expansion of gambling in Massachusetts will mean for Rhode Island. In case you don't get it, Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory put it bluntly last Wednesday: The Bay State, he wrote, needs ``at least one slot parlor strategically located to drive Twin River, the teetering slot venue in Rhode Island, out of business.''

Massachusetts government seems intent on joining the New England gambling craze that has washed over Rhode Island and Connecticut. It's now apparent that our northern neighbors aren't going to allow Rhode Island and Connecticut to soak up millions in gambling revenue when a recent study estimated that Massachusetts residents spend a billion dollars a year at gambling venues outside their state.
There is scant difference between the pols of Beacon Hill and Smith Hill; in both these ancient New England capitals the focus runs to sports, politics and revenge, not necessarily in that order.

But Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick studied the issue closely, with a focus on economic development. In the end, he settled on a plan for three destination casinos, set in different regions of the state. In this way, Massachusetts would reap both gambling revenue and new jobs at the new resort-like casinos. Some part of Gov. Patrick's plan is likely to become law.

Now contrast that with the willy-nilly way Rhode Island has dealt with state sponsored gambling. Slot machines came here in 1992 because an influential lobbyist for the dog owners at the old Lincoln Greyhound Park slipped a provision into the state budget. Then in 1994 the Narragansett Indian tribe tried to win voter approval for a casino, which narrowly failed.

They tried again in 2006. But their plan to build a Las Vegas style casino in West Warwick was shot down after much of Rhode Island's business and political elite - led by Governor Carcieri and the restaurant and hotel industries - campaigned against it.

As a sop to the local hotels and restaurants, the slot machine venues here pledged not to build hotels or other attractions. So today Rhode Island has two freestanding slot parlors with none of the job-creating extras, such as stores, hotels and golf courses.

The upshot is that while our state government takes in more than $250 million a year in taxes from the slots, in just a couple of years, we'll be at the mercy of much more attractive gambling venues just across our borders. So NOW is the time to take a deep breath and figure out a future for this business. Why not set up a committee of economic development and gambling experts, add in some business and labor leaders and charge them with making some recommendations?

Rhode Island's politicians have done an awful lot to protect Twin River and Newport Grand from competition within out state's borders. In the state budget, they even gave the slot parlors almost $4 million in state money for publicity even as they cut money for education and aid to cities and towns. But without a 21st century strategic approach, all the back room State House deals in the world won't stop gambling money from flowing north to Massachusetts, which would only leave Rhode Island with its tired slot parlors -- and a lost opportunity.