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Which way will the dice roll?

By PHILIP EIL  |  October 8, 2014

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NO! Some of the Citizens Concerned About Casino Gambling. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]

THE PLAYERS

Citizens Concerned About Casino Gambling, the committee campaigning to defeat Question 1, is proud of the fact that it’s been around a lot longer than its pro-table game opponent, Jobs for Newport.

In a recent Facebook graphic, CCACG pointed to the fact that it was founded 37 years ago, as opposed to JFN’s “4 Months” of operation. The group’s website includes a timeline of various actions from those 37 years — working in opposition to a referendum supporting simulcast racing in 1991, working to defeat a proposed casino for Goat Island in 1980 — dating to 1977, when the group was organized “to fight a casino proposal that was eventually rejected by the City Council 5-2.”

CCACG has also touted the lopsided number of campaign contributors on either side of this year’s issue (“130+” for CCACG; one for JFN) as a sign of the group’s populist appeal. But the situation isn’t quite that simple. Among those 130 contributors is famously wealthy Campbell’s Soup heiress Dorrance Hamilton, who recently sold Wildacre, her 14-room Ocean Avenue mansion in Newport, for $14 million. On September 2, Hamilton penned CCACG a check for $10,000 from a mailing address outside Philadelphia.

On the other side, Jobs for Newport is understandably — and often persuasively — leading with a blue-collar PR blitz highlighting Newport Grand employees who have worked happily at the facility for years, if not decades. “I’ve been working at Newport Grand since the day it opened 38 years ago,” says Mike Wood, pictured with his family in the “Our Stories” section of jobsfornewport.com. “This job helped us buy our home and put our sons through college.”

But JFN isn’t exactly a humble-origins operation either. The money behind the campaign — and there is a lot of it — comes from the three mega-businessmen who have partnered to pitch voters their vision of a bright, shiny, multi-purpose “entertainment center” at Newport Grand, complete with a spa, restaurants, indoor and outdoor performance arenas, a skating rink, and a maritime museum.

Joseph Paolino Jr. — former Providence mayor, former director of the RI Department of Economic Development, former US ambassador to Malta, big-time Democratic fundraiser, and prolific Rhode Island real estate developer — is the best-known in Rhode Island of the three. Earlier this year, he made headlines for dropping $60 million to purchase 20-story building at 100 Westminster Street in downtown Providence, along with two smaller properties nearby. Paolino told us that he has homes in Providence and Newport. “Right now, I’ve been living in Newport,” he said. “If I have dinner in Providence and don’t want to drive after dinner, I stay in Providence.”

Second in the trio is Paul Roiff, a Boston real estate mogul perhaps best known in RI as the guy the who bought Newport’s famous/infamous former von Bulow mansion, Clarendon Court, for $13.1 million in 2012.

Rounding out the trio is Peter de Savary, a British-born, multimillionaire Newport transplant who has worked on real estate developments around the world (including Portsmouth’s Carnegie Abbey golf course) and who introduces himself on his personal website as an “international entrepreneur, yachtsman, and philanthropist.” He is often photographed on yachts, smoking cigars, or smoking cigars while on yachts.

THE ARGUMENTS

So, how is each side making its case?

It’s tough to find more stripped-down (albeit spin-heavy) points than the ones that appear on each side’s campaign literature. This list, entitled “4 REASONS TO REJECT QUESTIONS 1 & 2” comes from a flier handed out at the CCACG’s September 6 campaign kickoff at the Newport Elks lodge:

1. SAVE YOUR LOCAL JOBS! When casinos open – local business close. Winter months are tough enough without the casino sucking business right off the Newport Bridge!

2. A LOUSY DEAL FOR NEWPORT. All this effort and money spent to get table games for some developers and NEWPORT WILL NOT GET ONE PENNY FROM TABLE GAMES — EVER!!

3. CASINOS ARE GOING BANKRUPT EVERYWHERE! What kind of business person would invest in a dying industry?

4. THE STATE WILL CONTROL GAMBLING IN NEWPORT. If Question #1 is approved, the STATE will be able to do ANYTHING they want with gambling in our City. Anything. . . Anywhere.

Meanwhile, this comes from a Jobs for Newport flier:

THIS NOVEMBER VOTE YES ON QUESTIONS 1 & 2

— SAVE 175 JOBS, CREATE OVER 200 NEW JOBS

Voting Yes on Questions 1 & 2 will save the 175 jobs currently at Newport Grand, while creating a minimum of 200 new jobs. The hiring process for these new jobs will provide preferential treatment for Newport residents.

— ENSURE THAT NEWPORT GRAND MUST REMAIN ONLY AT ITS CURRENT LOCATION

Voting Yes on Questions 1 & 2 will guarantee that Newport Grand remain at its current location at 150 Admiral Kalbfus Road. The proposed $40 million investment will create a boutique entertainment facility in the city’s North End.

— GUARANTEES NEWPORT $9 MILLION IN PROPERTY TAX RELIEF OVER THE NEXT SIX YEARS

Voting Yes on Questions 1 & 2 will triple property tax relief for Newport, providing the city with $9 million over the first 6 years, and at least $1 million per year thereafter. This increase in revenue would go a long way in reducing the city’s tax burden for years to come.

THE MESSAGING

Verbal gymnastics are one of the most entertaining parts of election season, and this campaign hasn’t disappointed.

Pro-table game Newport Grand investors are adamant that the renovated facility will be a Monte Carlo-esque, “European-style” facility. When talking to them, those words “Monte Carlo” and “Europe” come up again and again.

“It’s not your typical large casino you see in America,” de Savary told us. “It’s not a Mohegan Sun, it’s not a Twin River or anything of that sort. It’s a very European feeling — something more along the lines of what you would find in Monte Carlo and other such places.” Later, he added, “We’re talking about a European-style, chic, boutique, quality facility that attracts people that appreciate that sort of thing.”

“Have you ever traveled to Europe? Ever been to Monte Carlo?” Paolino asked us, in a separate interview. “We’re not going to have a Dunkin’ Donuts in our place. This is going to be a little bit more of an upscale facility than what people are used to seeing in America.”

This line of relentless Euro-messaging has yielded some amusing contradictions. In his September 29 interview with the Phoenix, de Savary told us, “We won’t have your typical American shows and concerts. We will have much more European artists, European-style shows.”

In an interview with Newport Mercury days earlier, though, Paolino said, “We’re going to have an entertainment area to bring in shows like Billy Joel or Jimmy Buffett or Tony Bennett or Taylor Swift.”

Hmmm.

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