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A Roll of the Die

Tiverton will be gaining Twin River Casino as the Newport Grand closes its doors

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The residents of Tiverton rolled the dice on their future on Election Day. What they came up with on their local ballot question was a winning seven for the Twin River Management Group, and its soon-to-be realized Twin River-Tiverton Casino and Hotel, when they approved its location to their small community.

The result was accomplished despite a political party trick any good, longtime Rhode Islander would appreciate: Twin River’s new gambling establishment required dual approval on November 8 of voters both statewide and locally.

The statewide go-ahead to make Tiverton the next Little Rhody Vegas seemed a lock. The ship of accepting full-blown betting parlors in the state has long since sailed, due in large part to Twin River’s visible success with their casino in Lincoln. Count in the ongoing proliferation of Rhode Island Lottery’s scratch card games and the omnipotent Powerball, and no one is going feel like The Biggest Little’s gambling virginity has been lost by Tiverton welcoming a casino into its arms. But the local angle was the wild card, especially with the history of the necessary two-fer vote.

Down the road from Tiverton, Newporters have fallen out of love with the Newport Grand betting palace. The site had opened in 1976 to tooting horns, huge murals on the walls painted by Rhode Island School of Design students, and the flamboyant introduction of players as a jai alai fronton where you could bet on the matches of the then-obscure sport, and which allowed Rhode Island to dip its toe in the rising gambling waters. But as jai alai’s popularity plummeted in the 1990s, the slots took over.

Newporters had twice, in 2012 and 2014, vetoed a local ballot referendum to allow Newport Grand to open up to more than just slots and horse racing action into big-time table games – this despite getting a green light from voters statewide to do what you please, folks. The local battle was fierce, and gambling opponents won out.

“The opposition was vociferous in Newport,” says state Senator Louis DiPalma, whose district includes part of Tiverton, and who did not support the Twin River-Tiverton proposal. “I didn’t see it in the same degree in Tiverton.” In a wonderful way of things working out for everyone, the sanctioning of Twin River-Tiverton will solve Newport’s fear of gambling because after the legal niceties, the Twin River Management Group will be taking Newport Grand’s gambling license across Aquidneck Island and over the Sakonnet River Bridge to the Tiverton site.

To some, okaying Twin River-Tiverton was a shock, but in a different way to those closest to the action Senator DiPalma says, based on his door-to-door campaigning for his own re-election. “I was surprised,” he says, “I thought it would pass by even more,” he commented on the less than 400-vote approval.

He was joined in that take by casino proponents. “We thought it would pass by an even larger margin,” says Patti Doyle, spokeswoman for Twin River Management Group. Doyle spearheaded the $1 million-plus statewide ad campaign under the aegis of the “Citizens to Create Jobs and Protect Revenue” coalition, which included high profile locals and the political sway of endorsements by the AFL-CIO and the brotherhoods of police and firefighters. But obviously some of their spinmeister effort (didn’t see any mention of gambling or a casino in their name, didja?) rubbed off on town residents. One nearby resident who opposed the casino told media that it was a David versus Goliath situation, given the power of the well-organized statewide coalition.

The claims of jobs and revenue appear valid, however, according the Twin River Management’s projections. The projected revenue from Twin River-Tiverton for the local community will be $4 million annually, $3 million of that in gaming revenue and $1 million in property taxes and fees. Nothing to sneeze at in the current Rhode Island economy, and a windfall that many local proponents have said should be invested in Tiverton’s education system. Statewide, the yearly take is estimated to be $50 million annually. (Doyle explained that this is a conservative number, based on the assumption that a casino will be built in the future in nearby Massachusetts. If not, that projection goes up to $70 million for Rhode Island.)

As for jobs, Twin River Management says there will be 550-600 licensed employees at the casino, 350-400 of which will be full-time workers, and create 330 construction jobs during the building stage, which has an up-and-running goal of July 2018. The 38,000 square foot gaming area will house 1,000 slot machines and 32 table games, such as blackjack, roulette and craps. The affiliated hotel will be a three-story structure, and the grounds will also include up to four restaurants and accommodate parking for 1,300 vehicles.

Doyle says the Twin River facility in Lincoln has 75-80% Rhode Island resident employees, and “We will try to replicate that in Tiverton. We will give opportunities to current Newport Grand employees, and give Tiverton residents a first chance” at filling the positions. The design and project team includes regional firms JCJ Architecture, Cherenzia and Associates for civil engineering, and Bryant Associates for traffic issues.

But why Tiverton? The Tiverton location seemed a bit off the beaten track for an industry that thrives on an image of sparkle and glamor, instead making its home in an area known for land conservation efforts, a splendid river running through it and fish-and-chip shacks. But for a “convenience casino,” where the destination is an in-and-out proposition, the town fit the bill. Especially in the face of what appears to be inevitable future competition arising in Massachusetts. The site of the new Twin River-Tiverton casino will be within spitting distance of Fall River (provided you can spit 450 feet).

Given the competition sure to arise in Massachusetts, Doyle says, “We knew we couldn’t go back to the Newport Grand, so we were a bit handicapped with the choice of location. The question is ‘when,’ not ‘if,’ in that corridor. So we wanted to be closer to the customer base, and on- and off-ramps from the highway.”

The cost to Twin River Management for building the casino and ancillary work will be an estimated $75 million. That will include a new roundabout to handle the increased traffic flow, as well as addressing environmental concerns. With
wetlands and a brook on the property, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management will get involved, needing Twin River-Tiverton to submit alteration plans and to address issues of stormwater runoff control. Some mitigating efforts have been included in the plans already, such as a wetlands buffer and a bridge to allow for wildlife migration across the swampland. But more work will be needed to obtain final permits, and Doyle says that further refinements will be made, always contingent upon the town’s input and approval.

On the societal side, the battle is still ongoing wherever casinos pop up about the potentially destructive impacts on the lives of individuals and their families, and the threat of increased crime in the area, concepts that led one local business owner to say of the casino plan, “I’m very disgusted. This town is not the place for it.” The first bit of opposition is difficult to monitor or control, no matter what your take is on conceivably gambling away your life savings. The latter can be judged somewhat by the Twin River experience in Lincoln, and the support of the police union.

“If history has any bearing on the future, how Twin River has interacted with Lincoln, it has been very positive,” says Senator DiPalma. The Lincoln casino is four times bigger than what is proposed for Tiverton, and Twin River officials say there has been no increase in crime since their 2007 expansion. The casino has its own security force, supplemented by local police and firefighters, but Twin River says there has been no increase in the number of officers in the town since the build-up, a small associated savings to the locals.

Senator DiPalma also offers up a concise and pragmatic view of the future of the Twin River-Tiverton Casino and Hotel: “The voters have spoken. The state needs to support it. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. Time will tell.” You can bet on that.TwinRiver.com