Slotting into position – Wondy won’t pursue slots; Suffolk Downs at the forefront of gaming debate

Were House Speaker Bob DeLeo’s expanded gaming bill to pass as proposed, Wonderland Dog Track officials said they wouldn’t pursue slot machines at the old track.

Instead, it appears that Suffolk Downs will be the area’s only epicenter of potential expanded gaming in any form.

“[Putting gambling at Suffolk Downs and redeveloping Wonderland] is the ultimate goal in this whole exercise,” said Wondy CEO Dick Dalton this week. “It just makes a lot more sense. It goes back to why we partnered with Suffolk in the first place a few years ago. Instead of competing with each other, it just makes a whole lot more sense to spread out our resources and work together. I think the redevelopment of Wonderland is part of the overall development of Revere Beach. That’s a very good thing for Revere.”

While Dalton said it’s still premature to discuss Wonderland’s future, the options seem to point to redevelopment. However, DeLeo’s bill calls for extending simulcasting at the track until 2014. That right currently will run out this July.

Mayor Tom Ambrosino said he would prefer to see Wonderland redeveloped and was not interested in the idea of putting slots at the dog track.

“My strong preference is a full-blown casino at Suffolk Downs,” he said. “If all they end up with is slots, that’s not my preference but I would prefer it to having Suffolk close down, which is what will happen without any expanded gaming. I would like them to redevelop Wonderland and to redevelop it quickly.”

DeLeo (D-Winthrop) unveiled his expanded gaming bill last Thursday to great fanfare in Boston. As has been the focus, DeLeo’s emphasis in the bill was on job creation – using gambling as a vehicle to create jobs immediately and in the long-term.

“The legislation I’m proposing to you today is a jobs bill,” he said at the press conference in Boston. “It creates a new sector of our economy that will create jobs and help keep our residents employed.”

The immediate part of that equation was calling for a total of 750 slot machines to be allowed at the state’s four existing racetracks – one of which is Wonderland and another of which is Suffolk Downs.

The other two tracks are in Raynham and Plainville.

DeLeo said that putting slots at the tracks would “grow and retain jobs at these venues while bringing much-needed revenue to the state.”

In addition to the slots issue, highlights of DeLeo’s bill call for:

•Two resort casinos permitted by a state license.

•Any casino applicant to commit to spending at least $500 million in capital investments.

•Re-investing state gaming revenues in manufacturing jobs, workplace partnerships, tourism and local capital projects.

•Earmarking a significant portion of state gaming revenues for local aid to cities and towns.

•Requiring casino operators to pay fees to host communities and abutting communities as mitigation.

•Increasing funding for gambling addiction programs.

•Strengthening laws for regulating expanded gaming.

One thing the bill didn’t outline – and is of paramount importance to Revere – is just how much money the host fee would be worth.

“There’s not a specific host fee number at this point, but the expectation is the host fee is negotiated with a licensee before the licensee submits their application,” said Mayor Ambrosino. “That would be part of the [competitive licensing] process.”

Meanwhile, Dalton agreed that this bill and this political climate are much different than in the past. While past debates were about gambling, this time it is a serious effort at job creation.

“It’s as it should be,” said Dalton. “If you talk about job creation, the opportunities are few and far between. There’s always talk about the biotech industry, but that only creates 100 jobs here and 100 jobs there. Not to belittle that, but you have the opportunity here to create thousands of jobs at a time.”

DeLeo’s bill will be discussed and voted on in the House this month, many believe, and it is expected to pass the House this time. From there, it will travel to the Senate, where many believe it will be changed significantly. Final approval will come from Gov. Deval Patrick.

The timeline on that process could be anyone’s guess, but the urgency for the state to find new revenues could set the process in motion at an uncharacteristically fast pace for state government.

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