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Which way will the dice roll?

By PHILIP EIL  |  October 8, 2014

 1010_Newp_yes_top.jpg
YES! A Jobs For Newport contingent. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]

THE REPORTS

The Newport table games info war has involved tweets, op-eds, letters to the editor, window-signs, stickers, and fliers. But perhaps the biggest info-artillery has come from dueling scholarly reports.

On the “yes” side is the 18-page, Jobs for Newport-commissioned report, Economic Impact Study of the Newport Entertainment Center, by URI professor of business administration Edward Mazze, that begins with the sentence, “The investment of $40 million in Newport Grand will have a positive economic impact on Rhode Island and the City of Newport.”

Dr. Mazze repeats and elaborates on this theme for the rest of the paper, dividing the virtues of table game expansion into two broad categories: short-term benefits from a construction project that will “create $50 million in economic activity in Rhode Island. . . support 414 full-time equivalent jobs with $19.9 million in wages and salaries and $2.2 million in taxes”; and long-term benefits from table games that will allow the facility to better compete with its regional competitors, retain its existing jobs, and create more than 300 additional jobs.

On the other side of the issue, there is the Council on Casino’s 55-page Why Casinos Matter: Thirty-One Evidence-Based Propositions from the Health and Social Sciences report from 2013, copies of which were handed out at the CCACG kickoff. This report, produced by a coast-to-coast consortium of academics from schools including UCal Berkeley, NYU, Dartmouth, UPenn, Baylor, and Brown specifically cites the lack of non-gaming-industry-funded scholarly research on gambling in US. (Mazze’s report, of course, falls into that category.)

From there, it presses on with 31 “propositions” (“7. Modern slot machines are engineered to make players lose track of time and money”; “10. Problem gambling is more widespread than many casino industry leaders claim”) that, together, paint an alarming picture of the speed with which casino gambling is spreading across the country, and the cumulative effects this may have.

Though the report was published a year before Mazze’s, many of the Council’s propositions read like direct rebuttals to the professor’s points. The report argues, for example, that casinos tend to hurt property values in host communities; muscle out local business that can’t compete with perks like free parking, free food, and free booze; and take aim a local residents through loyalty rewards and “free” play programs, then send that local money elsewhere, as “investor profits are extracted from the local market area, contributing to the long-term flow out of the community.”

Proposition 15 from the report reads, “The benefits of casinos are short-term and easy to measure while many of their costs are longer-term and harder to measure.

“Impact studies measure short-term economic benefits of a prospective casino but they typically fail to measure longer-term social costs. . . Casinos in Atlantic City began as an economic renewal project, but after nearly four decades, the city is still in need of economic renewal. Despite repeated bailouts by the state and a recent $30 million state-funded marketing campaign, Atlantic City remains an economically troubled place.”

Both reports are worth reading, and can be found at jobsfornewport.com/images/uploads/NewportEntertainmentCenter.pdf and americanvalues.org/catalog/pdfs/why-casinos-matter.pdf.

THE “INNOVATION HUB”

Followers of the ongoing saga of the vacated I-195 land in Providence might be interested to learn that a strikingly similar project is on the horizon in Newport. There, the wheels of government are slowly turning on a long-discussed project to reroute the tangle of roads that make up on- and off-ramps on the Aquidneck Island side of the Pell Bridge and, in doing so, free up some 40 acres of publicly-owned, developable land. Newport politicians and planners are eyeing this area as the future home of an “Innovation Hub” described on the city’s Engage Newport site as “a scientific and technological center that focuses on oceanographic research, defense/cyber applications, environmental technology, alternative energy, emerging digital industries and community resilience.”

 Since some of the proposed Hub parcels of land directly abut Newport Grand and its parking lot, the Hub has played a key role in the debate over table game expansion. Despite countless undecided or unknowable factors about the Hub — most notably, when the land in question will be freed up and whether any significant developers or companies will want to invest, when it does — anti-table gamers are still presenting Question 1 as an either/or decision.

“It’s almost time for voters to choose,” City Councilman Michael Farley recently wrote in a Facebook post. “Do you want to expand a slot parlor to create 100 four-month casino jobs, which will cannibalize our 4 month tourism season, while staying empty for eight months per year? Or do you want to create 1200 year-round, technology jobs which will support 1200 middle families? Let’s support the iHub.”

Republican State Senate candidate Mike Smith — currently vying for Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed’s District 13 (Newport, Jamestown) state senate position — is taking a similar tack. He recently called the Innovation Hub “clearly the better choice, longterm, having vision, establishing real, sustainable ways to bring individuals and families TO us, rather than drive them away. . . I urge you to help us show them we are on board with making the right choices for our ourselves and generations to come.”

Not surprisingly, Newport Grand investors call this a false choice. “When they say things like that, they lie,” Paolino says, pointing to the investing partners’ pledge to match the City of Newport’s contributions of up to $1 million to the Innovation Hub project.

His partner Peter de Savary calls the idea that a casino might scare off high-tech neighbors “bloody nonsense.”

TWO FINAL VOICES

NEWPORT GRAND WORKERS’ UNION (UAW LOCAL 7770) PRESIDENT CATHY RAYNER: Look at what happened at Twin River. Before the vote two years ago, they had approximately 900 workers. To date, the last count that I got, they have 1700 workers. I think that’s huge. And that’s because of their table games. [With a “Yes” vote on Question One] we could not only secure the jobs that we have. We could hire more people. And give them a living wage, which is hard to find in Newport, and good benefits.

The silly thing about this is we already have table games at Newport Grand. You walk up to the table and a virtual person greets you, talks to you, deals cards to you. Next to it is a roulette table — computerized. At this blackjack table, my dream is to see a real person standing there — not a virtual person — a real person standing there earning a real paycheck and real health benefits.

NEWPORT CITY COUNCILMAN JUSTIN MCLAUGHLIN: Gambling is a predatory thing. It’s based on the weaknesses of people. There are a lot of people who gamble just for the thrill of it and fun of it. But there are a lot of people who gamble for whom it’s a problem. And I find it abhorrent that the state relies on something like this to raise money. And I don’t think it’s the nature of this city to want to do that. This city was based on, if you will, some pretty lofty principles: religious freedom, religious tolerance. It has a rich history.

The question should be, “Is this something the state should be advocating?” Because in Rhode Island. . . when the state gets [around] 58 percent of the net gambling revenue, they’re a partner. They’re not just an investor or a casual [observer]; “Oh, let’s see what happens over there.” And I’m just saying that, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t be doing that. . . I think there are better things we can do to raise money.

Philip Eil can be reached atpeil@phx.com. Follow him on Twitter @phileil.

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