By Meg O’Neil
Nearly 60 people attended a forum hosted by the Alliance for a Livable Newport on Thursday, Sept. 13, in which three panelists discussed the pros and cons of adding table games to Newport Grand.
The decision will be decided by Rhode Island voters on Tuesday, Nov. 6, when the referendum will appear on the statewide general election ballot.
Currently, Newport Grand and Twin River in Lincoln only have video-slot machines. A vote in favor of the referendum will add table games such as poker, roulette, craps, blackjack and more. On Election Day, the referendums must pass both in Newport and Lincoln as well as statewide in order for the facilities to expand their game offerings.
The forum, held at the Community College of Rhode Island Newport campus, featured CEO & President of Newport Grand Diane Hurley; Fr. Eugene McKenna, parish priest from St. Lucy’s and President of Citizens Concerned about Casino Gambling (CCCG); and former Dean of Business at URI and current Professor Edward Mazze, who provided information on the economic impact of casino gambling.
Each panelist was given several minutes to explain their position. Hurley stated that the implementation of table games would initially bring 50 new jobs to Newport Grand, would not require moving outside the current structure’s footprint, and would allow Newport Grand to be competitive against casinos that will be built elsewhere in the New England region. With easy access to the facility off of the Newport Bridge, Hurley said another positive aspect is that the expansion would not add to the downtown traffic.
Speaking in opposition to table games, McKenna called the proposed table games a “threat to [Newport’s] proud community and rich historical heritage.” He added that the expansion at Newport Grand would be a “short-sighted public policy … and would be an economic dead end.”
McKenna focused on the social downfalls of gambling, and stated that 50 percent of casino revenues come from addicted gamblers. According to him, there are between 7,500 – 22,000 addicted gamblers in Rhode Island.
Tasked with examining the economic impact of casino gambling at the state level, Mazze said, “The truth is, particularly in Newport, because of the tourism, there’s no question … there’s going to be a positive inflow of dollars.” Because of Newport’s “strategic” location, Mazze said the table games will generate revenue for Newport and the state, as well as being another draw for tourists who are visiting Newport.
Mazze continued: “We’re in a state that has not created one new job since January 2007. We’re in a state that has double digit unemployment … almost 20 percent of Rhode Islanders are underemployed … and we lose the graduates of great schools because there are no jobs. We’re also a state that already has gambling. I think it’s an issue of how can we remain competitive in not only how we can attract more people to come to the state, as well as keeping Rhode Islanders from going out of state to gamble.”
Throughout the forum, Mazze’s statements displayed the positive economic impacts of table gambling.
On Monday, Sept. 7, ALN president Isabel Griffith issued an apology email to ALN subscribers that said the forum’s intent was to present a “level playing field of information” with a pro-casino speaker, an anti-casino speaker, and third unbiased speaker to present economic impacts.
“Two of [ALN’s] three goals were met … unfortunately, the third speaker, URI Professor Edward Mazze, presented only the pro-gambling side of the economic picture.” She stated that Mazze’s position put Father McKenna at a “disadvantage” on the forum panel, but also said that because the majority of the audience’s remarks were opposed to expansion at Newport Grand, that it “restored some balance to the evening.”
Comments and questions from the audience during the forum were mainly opposed to adding table games.
“Gamblers have an attitude problem,” said Liz Mathinos of Newport. “They like to take chances and unfortunately in this dire economic time, we’ve had too many people taking chances … to rely on gambling for revenue is really stupid.”
Aaron Jasper also spoke in opposition to the proposed extension, saying, “The natural resources of Rhode Island are the physical beauties – that’s what people come to visit for. They could go anywhere if they wanted to gamble, they can do it online. You should be embarrassed about what that airport hanger looks like when you come off the bridge. That is not Newport. If you want to have a building like that, do something nice with it.”
Hurley told the audience that she was exploring ways to “soften the image” of the building, including a new sign to replace the current “SLOTS” signage.
Marco Camacho, a First Ward candidate for City Council, said that redevelopment in the city’s north end is important to the community, and asked Hurley where she saw Newport Grand ten years down the road. He pointed out that the slot parlor could go in one of two ways: “The Las Vegas/Atlantic City type – where’s there’s an attitude of criminal elements or sleaze, or places like Monte Carlo and Monaco – that have the highest standard of living in the world.”
To that, Hurley said she sees Newport Grand as being a complement to the city of Newport and “being a Monte Carlo type of casino, not a Vegas style at all.”
A main argument from the audience was that table games have no place in Newport, saying that gambling does not fit into the “historic heritage” of the city.
However, as one man in the audience pointed out, when the Canfield House was built in 1860, it featured table games in parlor rooms.