Over the last few years, the gambling industry in the Northeast has been gradually expanding into new states, creating fierce competition for local gamblers. In Rhode Island, the gambling industry depends on the patronage of out-of-staters. Approximately 52% and 44% of the patrons at Twin River and Newport Grand respectively are residents of Massachusetts, which renders both casinos extremely vulnerable to new competition across the border. The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has already broken ground on the First Lite casino in Taunton, Massachusetts — just 45 minutes away from the Newport Grand casino in Rhode Island. However, the Rhode Island-based Twin River Management group proposes to stay competitive in the growing market by constructing a new hotel-casino in Tiverton, Rhode Island, only 400 feet from the Massachusetts border.
Before they can move forward with the project, state and local residents will have to approve the proposal in a referendum on the November ballot. Many residents in Rhode Island have persistently voiced their concerns about potential negative impacts of a casino in their local communities, including crime, addiction, and general moral corruption. But the economic benefits of the proposed Tiverton casino outweigh the potential drawbacks: the new project will give Rhode Island a competitive edge against the expansion of the industry within Massachusetts, create new local jobs, and strengthen the state and local economies.
Rhode Island benefits when gambling dollars stay within state lines. A recent study by the Spectrum Gaming group, which took into account both the closure of the Newport Grand and the construction of a new casino in Taunton, found that the state of Rhode Island could gain up to $30.2 million in tax revenue by 2019 if the Tiverton casino opens. In recent history, Rhode Island gambling has already contributed a substantial amount of taxes to the state: The RI Lottery (which includes Video Lottery Terminals, table games and traditional lottery tickets) constitutes about 10% of the revenue for Rhode Island’s General Fund, which is used to finance state expenditures for transportation, natural resource management, and education, among other projects — all activities that don’t reek of moral corruption. The tax revenue from the Tiverton casino project would likely be used to cover the payroll of state and local government employees, which would create more jobs and free up existing funds for other projects.
In addition to bringing in more state tax revenue, the new casino in Tiverton could bring a net increase of 791 new jobs for both the construction and operation of the casino. Unlike the Newport Grand slots parlor, which the Tiverton casino would replace, the new casino will have 25-35 table games, a full-service restaurant, entertainment, and a hotel — amenities that create more permanent jobs. The casino’s scope and proximity to the Massachusetts border, as compared to the Newport Grand, would provide nearby Massachusetts and Rhode Island residents an incentive to gamble in Rhode Island instead of traveling to the similarly-sized facility planned for Taunton.
Even though few would make the argument that casinos are an absolute good for society, this referendum should be about the specific effects of the Tiverton casino, not the desirability of casinos as a whole.
Despite the apparent economic benefits of the project, many Rhode Island residents hold strong convictions about the idea of opening a casino in their community. The “Save Tiverton” movement began as a grassroots opposition group fighting against the proposed casino, but the movement has largely fallen apart after a reporter from the Providence Journal inquired about the movement’s anonymous backers — who refused to disclose their identities or affiliations — causing the religious leaders at the forefront of “Save Tiverton” to break ties with the organization. The “Save Tiverton” movement continues to share articles and post status updates on its Facebook page, and other groups post flyers and hold informational meetings. Although it seems unlikely that the movement will provide significant traction against Twin River’s nearly $500,000 campaign to promote the casino, the group, at the bare minimum, provides a platform to community members who have serious fears about the new casino and represents a very real reluctance to approve construction.
The community is deeply concerned that a new casino will lead to gambling addiction among the local residents, and this fear is justified. Problematic or pathological gamblers are more likely to face a number of negative consequences such as losing jobs, filing for bankruptcy, or committing crimes in order to pay debts and continue gambling. And, unsurprisingly, easily-accessible casinos only exacerbate gambling problems: different studies show that anywhere from 35-52% of the revenue at an average casino comes from problem gamblers. But even though gambling addiction remains a real problem, it is unclear that the addition of a casino will make a measurable impact on addiction in Tiverton. With the new casino in Taunton already under construction just 24 miles away, the Newport Grand 13 miles away, and various other casinos in Rhode Island and Connecticut within an hour’s drive, residents of Rhode Island and Massachusetts already have ample opportunity to gamble — all the Tiverton project changes is precisely where they will do it.
Despite the fact that the new casino is not likely to increase the risk of gambling addiction, both the state of Rhode Island and the Twin River group could do more to provide resources for problem gamblers. Currently, the legislature allocates about $50,000 per year to the Rhode Island Hospital for the treatment of problem gambling, while the RI Lottery provides funds to support a hotline; overall, the per capita allocation of public funds for problem gambling is well below the national average. The state legislature should consider creating a distinct service fund for problem gambling to spread awareness and fund community support groups.
It’s also useful to note that many of the jobs the new large-scale casino would create would benefit working class people, the same group that tends to be most harmed by the presence of a casino. The economic impact study for the Tiverton project concluded that the casino would offer economic opportunity for Tiverton’s poorest residents by providing entry-level and service jobs with an expected annual salary of $42,000. Although there’s no guarantee that all of the new jobs created in Tiverton will go to Tiverton residents, Twin River has a history of hiring locally, and any measure of local hiring would seriously impact the small population of poor and unemployed Tiverton residents.
One of the most widespread concerns about the construction of a new casino is that the facility will increase the crime rate in the area. However, the evidence on the link between casinos and crime is mixed, and most of the research on the subject was done more than a decade ago. A notable study by Grinols studying more than 170 counties with casinos from 1977-1996 found a significant link between the presence of casinos and a higher crime rate; however, this research may not ring true today. A study by the Associated Press in 2012 found that crime has fallen in the towns surrounding the Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.
In response to the community’s concerns, the Twin River management group has made it a point to emphasize the benefits of the casino to local residents. As a part of their campaign under the name Citizens to Create Jobs and Protect Revenue Inc., contractors, handymen, and electricians employed by Twin River companies praise the group and their practice of hiring local labor. The group also hosted more than 30 neighborhood meetings and three public workshops in order to hear input from the community about everything from environmental impact to traffic patterns. Tiverton residents were even allowed to vote on the casino’s architecture at a town council meeting, and they ultimately approved a design modeled after Tiverton’s local library, a point of pride in the community.
In November, Rhode Island voters will ultimately have to weigh the economic advantages of the Tiverton casino against its perceived social drawbacks. The disadvantages of living near casinos are real and should be considered closely. Even though few would make the argument that casinos are an absolute good for society, this referendum should be about the specific effects of the Tiverton casino, not the desirability of casinos as a whole. Considering the economic advantages of the casino, including job creation, tax revenue for the state, and a better chance at competing against the growing gambling industry in Massachusetts, the Tiverton casino is a safe bet for the state. Contrary to what the “Save Tiverton” group might say, approving the casino project would actually save Tiverton and the state of Rhode Island from losing out on an important economic opportunity.