State Gambling Industry Faces Continued Defecit

Rolling the DICE ELECTION 94 Third in a three-part series

REVERE, Mass.--In two months, when the bell sounds and the last race is run here at Wonderland, Mary Sacca will sigh, pack up her programs and head for the door--probably for the last time.

In order to increase profit, the management of Wonderland Greyhound Park has decided to enact a series of cost-cutting measures, one of which is to lay off Sacca and many of her co-workers when winter arrives.

It is a sad, personal and real reminder of the effect that out-of-state gambling enterprise have had on local betting organizations such as Wonderland, where Sacca sells the daily race programs.

"There have been a lot of lay-offs here," Sacca says. "A lot of our business has gone down to the casinos."

Those casinos, for Sacca and others, are the problem. And some in Massachusetts are hoping to build another one.

The losses, both in attendance and net income, have been staggering for Wonderland since the Foxwoods High Stakes Bingo and Cassino opened its doors in February 1992.

And with Gov. William F. Weld '66 fully supporting a new casino, to be owned and operated by the Wampenoag tribe in nearby New Bedford, local gambling enterprises--even the venerable state lottery--are bracing themselves for more economic losses.

Planners of the Wampanoag casino are looking to spend $150 million on the project, which will include a casino, restaurants and a theme park.

Weld, the Wampanoags and New Bedford leaders have high hopes that the casino will be so successful that the area will be revitalized and thousands put back to work. But such success in exactly what existing gambling institutions fear.

Since opening two-and-a-half years ago on Pequot tribal land in Ledyard, Conn., Foxwoods has become the largest grossing casino in the United States raking in about $600 million annually.

"Foxwoods has hurt us, because we are all after the same dollar," says Robert Trieger, assistant general manager and director of communications at Wonderland Greyhound Park. "In five years, our attendance and handling has dropped 40 percent."

While Trieger blames the economy and the presence of other racetracks, he says the decline is primarily due to the mega-casino on the other side of the state line.

"Five years ago, we were probably handling $190 million; last year we handled $133 million," says Trieger.

At nearby Suffolk Downs Recetrack, the bleak financial figures are no different, say track officials.

"There is no question that there has been a decline since Foxwoods opened," says John Ramacy, publicist for Suffolk Downs Recetrack. "[There are] a lot of people who, if they don't gamble at Foxwoods would gamble it here."

Even regulars at Wonderland have noticed the dramatic effect that the opening of Foxwoods has on the greyhound track.

"Casinos would shut this place down," says one 21-year-old Everett resident who has been going to Wonderland since he was 18. "Foxwoods is a lot better than here. It's a better environment."

"This place is gone, it is not what it used to be," says an elderly Boston resident. "People would rather go to the casino than watch dogs run."

For Wonderland, Suffolk Downs and other gambling arenas, that is their problem. Their one-dimensionality cannot compete with the multitude of glitzy events showcased nightly at a casino.

"With the casino, you have other forms of entertainment that you just don't have at the track," Ramsey says. "We have horse racing and that's about all."

"[It's the] atmosphere. If you come here, you get greyhound racing period. There you get blackjack, bingo, craps," Trieger says.

"And the casinos don't just have gambling, they have other forms of entertainment as well--singing, dancing and comedy," Trieger adds. "It's a mini-Vegas."

Track officials say that because of this, younger people, once prominent at local race tracks, have left and gone south.

"We see a lot of younger people going to casinos," Trieger says. "Our regulars our older people and so now we are trying to build up our younger crowd."

As one way to offset the financial losses that would be caused by another casino opening, a measure which would allow them to install slot machines is currently before the legislature, Trieger says.

The provision, which is part of the memorandum allowing the Wampanoag casino plan to go forward, would allot 400 slot machines to each of the state's four racetracks.

Track officials say the measure will help some, but that 400 slot machines are not enough in light of how much the they stand to lose when the new casino opens in New Bedford, less than two hours away.

"If the casino is on the horizon, Suffolk Downs needs more than 400 slot machines to compete with the New Bedford casino and the ones in Rhode Island," Ramsey says. "Four hundred slot machines are not enough to compete."

But it's better than nothing.

"We can stay competitive with the slot machines," says Joe Hartmann, assistant general manager and director of communications at Foxboro Park, another horse track. "We think it is a fair situation."

"The casinos are coming and we have to get something to survive," Trieger says. "If there is a casino and we get the slots, that will be a plus."

He is also hoping that the slot machines will attract the younger crowd that has left to go to the casinos.

"If we attract some young people to come in for the slots, then maybe they will become interested in greyhound racing," Trieger says.

Although they mourn the loss their parks will experience, the track officials acknowledge that allowing a casino in Massachusetts is a smart move for the state.

"All things equal, we would rather not have casinos in New England at all, but it makes sense for some form of casino gambling, because all of the money is now leaving the state," Ramsey says.

Hartmann says that because of the casinos, Foxboro Park will have to adjust its advertising strategy.

"It will not be a benefit to us, but it is something not only do we have to live with, but [it will force us] to refocus our marketing to be competitive with the casino," Hartmann says.

New advertising will promote the slot machines, and emphasize the family-oriented aspects of good old-fashioned horse racing, Hartmann says.

For the immensely popular and financially rewarding Massachusetts State Lottery, officials say they are in an "assessment stage" over a change in strategy if the New Bedford casino becomes a reality.

"We're still discussing it," says lottery spokesperson Deirdre Clark. "It will have some type of effect, we just do not know what type of effect it will have."

But for Sacca and hundreds of other Wonderland employees, the new casino would bring something more tangible, something they will need come December: a job.

"It would give us a boost here," Sacca said. "It would help me. I would be working.