First we will lose our top headline performers to casino performance venues – such artists as B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, David Copperfield, Bill Cosby, Miranda Lambert, Ian Anderson, Mandy Patinkin and many, many more. As evidence of this, The Hanover Theatre has already been prevented by the Connecticut casinos from booking Jerry Seinfeld, Jackson Browne, Denis Leary and several others.
Next the Broadway shows – anyone who’s driven west on I-290 over the past several month has seen Foxwoods’ billboard in Worcester advertising Hairspray and Cirque Dreams – both shows that have played at The Hanover Theatre. And again, it’s not that you’ll have a choice of whether to see a Broadway show at the casino or at The Hanover Theatre – radius restrictions will prevent the shows from appearing at The Hanover Theatre at all.
It’s not a question of competition – I firmly believe that the arts don’t compete with each other, that a thriving cultural community begets more culture. A casino performance venue isn’t simply competition for a non-profit performing arts center like The Hanover Theatre – it’s a 500-pound gorilla. And it’s a gorilla that’s not playing by the same rules – a resort casino’s performance venue is a loss leader; a way to get people through the door to gamble. The casino can pay above-market rates for performers, and charge less for tickets. In fact, casinos regularly give away free incentives (theatre tickets, hotel rooms and free food) in excess of 10 percent of their annual gaming revenue. That can easily amount to $50 million a year or more in free tickets, rooms and food. The casino isn’t selling tickets to a show in order to pay for the show – it’s giving away free tickets just to get you to come and gamble.
It is ironic that the case being made for resort casinos in Massachusetts is based on the economic benefit they will purportedly create, when so much evidence points to exactly the opposite effect. How can we be expected to believe that a resort casino will bring one dollar of economic activity to the surrounding area, when that casino’s business model is built around keeping people from leaving the building? No windows, no clocks – nothing to remind gamblers that there’s anywhere they might want to be other than at blackjack tables or slot machines. “Resort” casinos are designed to be just that – everything under one roof. A theatre featuring a headline performer to bring people in (at cheap ticket prices, subsidized by gambling dollars), restaurants, shopping and more.
They will bring in dollars – Massachusetts dollars – that will then go to out-of-state casino owners. Those are dollars that won’t be spent at Massachusetts restaurants, hotels and theatres.
The entertainment venue in a resort casino will create jobs, but those same jobs will be lost when The Hanover Theatre and other performing arts centers close their doors. Restaurants in a resort casino will create jobs, but those same jobs will be lost when independent restaurants in the surrounding communities close.
So the result is no net impact from a resort casino? Wrong – it’s worse than that. The 300,000 people who have visited The Hanover Theatre in the past two years have dined at nearby restaurants, parked in city garages, shopped nearby. When those 300,000 people visit the theatre in a resort casino, they’ll spend those ancillary dollars at the casino’s restaurants, stores and slot machines; and those dollars will leave Massachusetts.
There are a lot of people making noise about casino gambling in Massachusetts, on all sides of the issue, so rather than take anyone’s word for it, I would encourage you to do your own research. Look at New London, Connecticut, where more than thirty restaurants closed following the opening of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. When a casino opened in Cripple Creek, Colorado, a once-thriving downtown went from 66 restaurants to less than 10. Look at performing arts centers in other cities near resort casinos – in less than an hour on the phone I spoke to managers of theatres in Reading, Pennsylvania; Fresno, California and Ames, Iowa that have been severely hurt by casino performance venues.
Iowa is a good case study, in fact – a state of just 3 million people, it has twenty casinos. Despite promises that gambling profits would focus on education, the state still ranks near the bottom in public funding for schools. Iowa wages are well below the national average; prisons are overcrowded; public funding for the arts is among the lowest in the nation; and the state is currently funding a budget crisis of greater magnitude than ours in Massachusetts.
It’s not gambling itself, but rather the presence of performance venues in “resort” casinos that will deal the death blow to The Hanover Theatre and others like it. Whether you’re one of the 300,000 who have visited The Hanover Theatre yet or not, you’ve probably heard about the good that has come from the restoration and renewal of this historic gem; and you may have felt a little of the new life it’s begun to bring to our city.
The theatre’s restoration and opening came at a price of $31 million – raised in charitable contributions from thousands of individuals, businesses and foundations. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts provided almost $5 million in historic rehabilitation tax credits; an investment that has almost certainly been repaid already in additional economic activity the theatre has created in Worcester. This is real economic benefit – dollars that stay in Massachusetts, create jobs and vitalize our city.
It is critical that we keep what’s going well in Massachusetts, rather than gamble it away. Our legislators on Beacon Hill will deliberate, imminently, the future of resort casinos in Massachusetts. Contact them today and let them know that the theatre and its impact on Worcester are important to you.
Don’t let them throw away their investment in The Hanover Theatre – and yours – on a bad bet.
Executive Director, The Hanover Theatre