PLAINVILLE — Massachusetts officially entered a new era of legalized casino gambling today as Plainridge Park Casino swung open its doors and became the first gaming facility in the state.
Sports celebrities, government officials and representatives of Penn National Gaming marked the occasion by cutting a ribbon held by two Las Vegas-style showgirls.
“This is like seeing a baby being born,” state Sen. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham, said of the start of the gambling industry in Massachusetts.
“It sparkles,” former Boston College football star Doug Flutie said.
Plainridge will only have slot-machine gambling, but full-fledged casinos with table games and hotels are planned for Springfield and Everett. There are also two applications for one available casino license in Southeastern Massachusetts.
The expansion into gambling is a dramatic development for Massachusetts, a state with Puritan origins that was reluctant at first to follow the national trend toward gambling. It is one of the last of the northeastern states to take the step.
Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have years’ worth of a head start on Massachusetts.
“Today is a momentous day,” state Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby said.
He said in an interview that everyone will be watching to see how Plainridge performs because it is the first in the state.
“It’s extremely important to get it right. It’s the trial run, or stalking horse, for the industry,” he said.
Penn National executives agreed.
“We will deliver exactly what we promised from day one,” Chief Operating Officer Jay Snowden said. “We take our commitments very seriously and we will never let you down.”
Among the commitments it has made is to run a first-class operation, keep harness horse racing alive at the facility, pay the Town of Plainville $4.7 million a year in property taxes and fees, and provide employment for 500 people.
Crosby said he is confident the new venture will succeed because Massachusetts has the strictest gambling law in the country to protect the public and Penn National is a high-quality company with a lot of experience.
It has met all the conditions of its license, including local hiring and diversity in contracting with women, minority and veteran businesses, he said.
Penn National President and CEO Timothy Wilmott said the road to opening Plainridge was a “long arduous journey” that caused some sleepless nights.
Among the roadblocks was a referendum last November seeking to repeal the casino law after Penn National had already spent $100 million on Plainridge. Wilmott said $15 million was spent defeating that measure.
Plainridge, he said, will be a high energy, racing, gaming, dining and entertainment venue.
Forty percent of the revenue from the slot machines will go to the state. Another 9 percent is earmarked for a trust fund to beef up purses at horse tracks in Massachusetts.
Twenty five percent of that 9 percent will go to Plainridge. The rest will remain in the fund until it is determined what will happen to Suffolk Downs, a thoroughbred track in Boston that is closed.
Some horsemen want to reopen Suffolk.
Crosby said other states have experienced tracks “going dark” only to reopen years later when the fund from slots revenue builds up, so the commission will wait and see what happens with Suffolk.
Arthur Roy, a former Plainville resident and race horse owner, said the money from the slots will revive the horse industry in Massachusetts.
Not only will Plainridge attract better horses with bigger purses, but he would not be surprised if horse farms and breeding operations get a boost.
He said he has seen Penn National buy other tracks around the country and build them up.
The new 106,000-square-foot gambling facility was built beside an existing clubhouse for the track.
It is a shining collage of sights and sounds with an emphasis on giving off a sense of energy.
It will be open 24 hours a day. In addition to 1,250 beeping, blinking slot machines, it features Flutie Sports Bar, named after Doug Flutie; Slacks, an oyster and seafood restaurant, a three-restaurant food court with fast food; and a lounge with live bands.
Flutie and former Red Sox most valuable player Fred Lynn were among those in attendance for the opening.
Wilmott said 1,250 slot machines is a little small for the industry, but that is all the law allows. He said the company could consider adding “ancillary” features such as more restaurants or a hotel in the future.
Horse racing is there to stay, he said.
The fact that Plainridge is opening about three years before Springfield and Everett gives Plainridge a jump on building customer loyalty, he said.
Among the happiest people at the opening were officials from Plainville, the host town of Plainridge.
They said the possibility that Plainridge could close as a race track weighed heavily on the town until Penn National won the slots-machine license.
Ross said the revenue coming into town will make it a highly desirable place to live.
Selectmen Chairman Rob Rose said the location of Plainridge off Route 1 and Interstate 495 means it will have little impact on the town other than the revenue.
Selectwoman Andrea Soucy joked that a new bookstore in the downtown will cause more traffic problems than Plainridge.
JIM HAND covers Plainville and politics for The Sun Chronicle. He can be reached at 508-236-0399, at email@example.com and on Twitter @TSCPolitics.