, Newburyport, MA

July 3, 2013

Our view: Salisbury made right bet on slots parlor

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Kudos to Salisbury Selectmen Freeman Condon, Don Beaulieu and Henry Richenberg for taking the prudent course of steering clear of a proposed slots parlor on Route 110.

The plan had all the marks of a badly-thought-out rush job. Salisbury was the third choice of the developers, behind Boxborough, which snubbed it outright, and Danvers, which appears ready to dump it, too.

Gross errors made in the developer’s presentation to selectmen — for instance, understating the size of the building by a factor of 10 and overstating the number of slot machines by a factor of 10 — made it obvious that not all ducks were in a row. Not even close.

Selectmen were also up against a tight deadline. They had to negotiate a deal before the end of the month, on a development plan that is being thrown together on the fly. This was a plan that would have had widespread impact on Salisbury and surrounding communities for years to come.

In the end, there were too many variables and not enough time. Salisbury selectmen backed out by a vote of 3-2. Good for them. It was the wise choice to make.

Massachusetts lawmakers have voted to allow three casinos and a slots parlor to be built in the state. What we’re seeing now is the mad scramble by several development companies to win one of the coveted licenses.

The lure of gambling money is enticing to public officials. There are potentially millions of dollars in revenue and hundreds of jobs dangling before towns that are being wooed by the development companies. But none of it is guaranteed, and if we look for a moment at the trends in the gambling industry, those starry-eyed enticements are in fact clouded and blurry.

Foxwoods in Connecticut, the largest casino in the Western Hemisphere, is struggling to get out from underneath its enormous debts. It built a complex that outstrips the demand for gambling, and it is now paying the price. Across the river, its major competitor Mohegan Sun has gone through round after round of layoffs. It has laid off about one-third of the 10,000 employees it had prior to the 2008 recession.

Both of these casinos depended heavily on Massachusetts residents to support their bottom line. What we are seeing is a leveling off, if not a contraction, of the gaming industry.

Perhaps the best comparison is Rhode Island’s Twin River, a huge slots parlor that recently was granted permission to become a full-fledged casino. It was done out of desperation: Twin River, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2010, sees Massachusetts gaming parlors as a significant threat to its survival.

Perhaps if there had been a lot more time and a better thought-out plan, the developers could have presented Salisbury with something enticing and feasible. But the mad scramble, and all the red flags that went with it, were all Salisbury had to look at to decide to take a pass.

The rage with which the owner of the would-be gambling parlor site reacted when the plan was rejected only confirmed the wisdom of the decision.

The Baltimore-based Cordish Companies had proposed building the 1,250-machine casino on part of 11 acres owned by Bruce Arakelian of Haverhill on 110 near the Interstate 95 interchange, where the Sylvan Street Grille and Video Max cinema are now located.

Arakelian, who would have profited by selling or leasing the property to the developers, told the three nay-saying selectmen they were finished and told Beaulieu to not even bother running.

“Why don’t you just pack up your things and get the hell out,” Arakelian shouted. “You’re ... useless. I’m going to put up a digital sign on my property saying what you guys did.”

Salisbury is lucky that three of its five selectmen didn’t let dreams of big money distort their thinking.