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Which way will the dice roll?

Election Day brings a referendum on Newport Grand — and the City By the Sea's future
By PHILIP EIL  |  October 8, 2014

 1010_Newp_grand_top.jpg
"A VERY EUROPEAN FEELING" An artist's rendering of the renovated Newport Grand.

In a perfect world, we’d bring you in-depth stories on each of the seven referendum questions appearing statewide on the November 4 ballot: the ones pertaining to expanded table gaming at Newport Grand (Question One); amending the state constitution to make referendums necessary in order for gambling establishments to change locations within their cities and towns (Two); the yes/no vote on whether RI should hold its first Constitutional Convention since 1986 (Three); the approvals of a $125 million bond for a new engineering building on URI’s Kingston campus (Four), $35 million in bonds to benefit assorted arts organizations and historic preservation efforts (Five), another $35 million in bonds for mass-transit infrastructure improvements across the state (Six), and $53 million in bonds for various “Clean Water, Open Space, and Healthy Communities” initiatives, including $15 million for renovations at the Roger Williams Park Zoo (Seven).

But this ain’t a perfect world. And we don’t have the time, space, or resources for that kind of multi-tiered presentation. If you’re hungry for a pre-Election Day homework assignment, we suggest downloading a copy of the Secretary of State’s 30-page Rhode Island Voter Information Handbook 2014 at sos.ri.gov/documents/elections/VoterHandbook_2014.pdf.

But, having said all that, we are going to dive into that question about bringing poker tables, roulette wheels, and flesh-and-blood blackjack dealers to the big metal shack with the bright red “SLOTS” sign visible from the Pell Bridge.

“Wait, a second,” you might say. “Didn’t voters in Newport already reject an expansion of table gaming at Newport Grand in 2012?”

Yes, they did.

But, thanks to a convoluted, slightly sketchy process involving votes by both the General Assembly and Newport City Council in recent months, Rhode Island voters will be faced with the following question on Election Day: “Shall an act be approved which would authorize the facility known as ‘Newport Grand’ in the city of Newport to add state-operated casino gaming, such as table games, to the types of gambling it offers only and exclusively at the facility located at 150 Admiral Kalbfus Road, Newport?”

The vote has to win approval in both the city of Newport and the state, as a whole, in order to take effect. So, before you mark “APPROVE” or “REJECT” on your ballot, here’s a bit of context on an issue that, according to some Newporters, places the very soul their beloved city on the line.

THE BASICS

Jai alai debuted in Newport in 1976 — the same year that brought the game to Hartford and Bridgeport, CT. (Longtime Phoenix contributor Tim Lehnert has an excellent piece on jai alai’s colorful Newport history at quahog.org called “Where Have All the Frontons Gone?”) But the sport became less and less of a draw over time, and video gambling took over more and more floor space inside the building. In 2003, jai alai operations closed permanently and “Newport Grand Jai Alai” became, simply, “Newport Grand.”

Nowadays, the facility, which even table-gaming proponents admit is “tired” and “not very attractive,” has 1097 video-gaming terminals, including video blackjack machines with televised dealers and virtual roulette that “offers the excitement of table games with the speed and ease of automated betting,” according to the website. A recently commissioned report by URI business professor Edward Mazze says that the operation has sustained a $35 million drop in gross revenue from video terminals since 2005, resulting in a 25 percent drop in staffing. (Since nearly 60 percent of video-gambling revenue goes to the state, the payoff from Newport Grand has also dropped steeply. Fiscal Year 2014’s $26.5 million contribution was just slightly over half of the $50.4 million the facility contributed in FY 2005.)

Table game proponents say that without a “Yes” vote on the November ballot, Newport Grand will go out of business within five years, taking more than 175 jobs — and millions in state revenue — with it.

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