BOSTON (AP) — Long before any glittering resort casino opens its doors in Massachusetts, patrons could be pulling handles on slot machines at a less ambitious gambling venue.
The commission appointed to oversee the state's year-old casino law recently decided that it would award the single slots-only license allowed under the law before it approved any of the three resort casino licenses. While the difference in licensing may only amount to a few months, the difference between when the facilities open could be far greater because the more compact so-called slots parlor would be quicker and cheaper to build.
"Because the capital investment is less, the construction period would be shorter," said Elaine Driscoll, a spokeswoman for the commission.
An optimistic forecast would have a slots parlor or what's known as a racino — a racetrack with slot machines — operating as early as 2014, while 2017 is seen as the more likely opening date for a resort casino.
Despite this advantage, competition for the slots license has been tepid at best.
For months, only the Plainridge harness racing track in Plainville had been definitive in its pursuit of the license. It had already paid a mandatory $400,000 application fee to the gambling commission. But it now appears certain that Plainridge will be vying with Raynham Park, a former dog track, and perhaps at least one other suitor.
The relative lack of interest is somewhat ironic, given that it was a dispute over slots parlors that delayed final passage of the casino law for a year. Gov. Deval Patrick refused to sign a bill in 2010 that would have allowed slot machines at two of the state's racetracks. He accepted a compromise with lawmakers in 2011 that permitted a single, competitively bid slots parlor that could be tied to a racetrack, though not necessarily.
Operators of such facilities can install up to 1,250 slot machines, but no table games such as blackjack or roulette. There are other distinctions as well.
A slots developer is required to make a minimum $125 million investment, compared with the minimum $500 million investment demanded of resort casino developers. But the state will take a bigger chunk of gambling revenues from the slots parlor, a 40 percent tax as opposed to 25 percent.
Plainridge's president, Gary Piontkowski, said the 15-year-old track near the junction of Route 1 and Interstate 495 has spent $10 million over the past three years planning for the advent of slot machines. His proposal calls for adding 100,000 square feet of gambling and restaurant space to the existing track.
"The shortest route is to use existing venues," said Piontkowski, who is also building a $20 million parking garage slated for completion in June.
The facility would compete directly, he added, for the casual gamblers who frequent the Twin River slots parlor about 23 miles south in Lincoln, R.I.
"I'm going to try to stop the flow of traffic and Massachusetts dollars from going to Rhode Island," he said.
The stakes are high for Plainridge. If it fails to win the slots license, Piontkowski said he'd be forced to end racing because it would no longer be viable as a standalone operation.
According to the American Gaming Association, 26 commercial slots-only facilities in seven states, mostly racinos, generated a combined $2.7 billion in 2011, up from $2.3 billion in revenue from 24 such operations in 2010. The association does not keep data on gambling venues run by Indian tribes.
But the national landscape is shifting. Pennsylvania, for example, legalized table games in addition to slot machines in 2010 and they are in place at all 11 of the state's casinos.
In November, Maryland voters approved Las Vegas-style table games at six casinos and Rhode Island voters approved casino games at Twin River, a move that may have partly come in response to the prospect of competition from Massachusetts.
George Carney, owner of Raynham Park, has been offering simulcasting of greyhound and thoroughbred races from other states since dog racing was outlawed in Massachusetts three years ago. But he's long held hopes of converting the former track into a slots parlor and recently announced a partnership with Parx Casino & Racing, which operates Pennsylvania's largest gambling facility outside Philadelphia.
"We're going to make an application and put our best foot forward," said Carney, who promised to release additional details of his proposal in the next couple of weeks. He touted the advantages of his location near I-495 and Route 24, and the prospect of a commuter rail station being built near the facility in Raynham.
Plainridge and Raynham may not be the only contenders for the slots-only license. Richard Friedman, a Cambridge-based hotel developer, told the Telegram & Gazette newspaper this month that he was exploring the possibility of acquiring a vacant industrial parcel in Worcester for a hotel and slots parlor.
Friedman, who did not return messages seeking comment, had not met with members of the commission as of last week and it was unclear whether he planned to meet the commission's Jan. 15 application deadline.