Melissa Bailey photo
Longtime Sports Haven bettor Vinny Lucibello: Bring on the slots. (Melissa Bailey photo)

In a quest for extra money, state legislators are exploring the idea of bringing slot machines to New Haven’s sleepy off-track betting arena.

The proposal emerged in the legislative session that ended last week. The proposal didn’t make it into the budget, but it did make it on the agenda of ideas legislators plan to investigate for the future.

The idea emerged as the state moves to swiftly expand gaming across the state by legalizing Keno, a bingo-like game.

New Haven state Rep. Roland Lemar is one of three legislators who came forward at a June 3 press conference calling on the legislature to set up a task force to study the idea of bringing slot machines to three off-track betting arenas in New Haven, Bridgeport and Windsor Locks.

Paul Bass photo
Rep. Roland Lemar (Paul Bass photo)

Lemar (pictured) said he does not support or oppose the idea; he said it is worth taking a look at. Currently the state allows slot machines only at its two casinos run by the the Mohegan and Pequot tribes. The state struck a deal in 1994 that gives the tribes the exclusive right to run slot machines, provided that they give 25 percent of slot revenue to the state. To allow for more slot machines, the state would have to reopen that compact.

Reopening the compact for that purpose is “certainly not something that we would be excited about doing,” said Chuck Bunnell, the chief of staff for the Mohegan Tribe. He said the tribe is open to the conversation, but would be against permitting slot machines in Windsor Locks, because that would compete against a casino the tribe is trying to open in Palmer, Mass.

The slot proposal met more enthusiasm from bettors hanging out at Sports Haven, the grand cylindrical parimutuel betting arena on Long Wharf.

“Bring ‘em in!” declared Frank Ruggiero, 84, one of several lifelong Wooster Square neighbors betting on televised horse races at the arena Monday afternoon.

“We’re gamblers,” he said.

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Sen. Andres Ayala and former Speaker of the House James Amann (Hugh McQuaid photo)

A problem-gambling activist, meanwhile, cautioned against creating more opportunities for people to ruin their lives through gambling addictions.

Lemar said he first heard of the proposal from former Speaker of the House Jim Amann (at center in photo), who now works as a gaming-industry lobbyist. Amann proposed bringing in slot machines to three arenas: Sports Haven in New Haven; the Shoreline Star in Bridgeport; and the Bradley Teletheather in Windsor Locks. All three are run by Sportech Inc., which is based in New Haven.

Lemar said he and two legislators from those areas, Bridgeport’s state Sen. Andres Ayala and state Rep. Peggy Sayers of Windsor Locks, sought to put the brakes on the proposal.

“We didn’t want to see what was happening with Keno happen in these three locations,” said Lemar.

The Case For

Lemar said he sees two main upsides to bringing in slot machines: Taxes and jobs.

• More taxes. Slot machines would bring a new revenue stream into the state and city. The state takes 3.5 percent of all bets in OTB venues around the state, then gives 1.6 percent to cities.

New Haven currently takes in about $900,000 per year from bets made at Sports Haven. At Sports Haven, customers can cast bets on televised races involving dogs, cars and horses, either by phone or in person. New Haven receives 1.6 percent of every bet placed at Sports Haven or on the phone. The city and state also take a portion of the money the company makes in rounding off bets to the dime.

Most of the money comes from bets made by phone to Sportech’s call center on Long Wharf Drive, the central call center for the state. Phoned-in bets to the New Haven call center bring in $20 million per year, according to Managing Director Ted Taylor

Adding slots could bring more money to New Haven.

“I think it’s worth looking into,” said Mayor John DeStefano of the proposal. “We already game out there on that site.”

Lobbyist Amann, who represents Shoreline Star building owners Susan and Robert Zeff, said when race tracks in New York put in video-slot machines, that took away 20 percent of video-slot revenues from Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos. “Other states are grabbing our revenue,” he argued. “We need to go on offense.”

• More jobs. Sports Haven currently employs 65 people, may of them taking telephonic bets, according to Taylor.

Lemar said bringing in slots could create more jobs.

“We’re losing jobs in the [gambling] industry currently, due to expansion of gaming in New York and Massachusetts,” Lemar said.

• More fun. Vinny Lucibello, a 70-something retiree who’s been going to Sports Haven for three decades, supported the introduction of slots.

“Of course!” he said. “Something new.”

He said he and his buddies already bets on dogs, horses and cars. “We bet on everything.”

Lucibello, of Wooster Square, said there’s no need for people to trek to the casinos to play slots when they could do it at home.

Frank Ruggiero, also from Wooster Square, agreed.

“We’re gamblers,” he said. He said they don’t go there to make money: “I come in here to pay the salaries of some of the workers” and to have fun.

The Case Against

Lemar cited three main downsides to the proposal.

• “Negative social impact.” Gambling can lead to addiction, which in can destroy a person’s relationships, finances, and career.

As one bettor at Sports Haven put it Monday, slot machines “are like a fixation. Once you get on them, you can’t get off.”

Mary Drexler, executive director of the Council on Problem Gambling, a statewide advocacy group that aims to reduce the prevalence and impact of problem gambling, said her group has serious concerns about expanding slot machines to OTB arenas.

“Along with the passing of Keno, it’s going to be just about wherever you go in the state of Connecticut, you’re going to have access to some kind of gambling activity,” Drexler said. The expansion of gambling “resolves the state budget,” she said, but legislators need to think about the social impact on people’s lives.

Drexler said she’s particularly concerned about youth. While casinos require patrons to be 21 years old, the OTB arenas are open to 18-year-olds. “At 18, they really shouldn’t be playing the slots,” Drexler said.

If the state legislature moves to legalize slot machines at OTB arenas next legislative session, Drexler added, “we need to make sure there’s money for treatment.”

Lobbyist Amann said he “understands their concern” about underaged slot-players. He said legislation could include a minimum-age requirement. He also said the problem-gambling council “should be at the table” when legislation is drawn up. “We don’t like to see anybody ruin their lives because of an addictive habit,” he said. “If there’s anyway we can prevent that, we will. But the reality is Connecticut is a gaming state. It’s been a gaming state since the early 70s … I don’t think there’s any way of turning back on that.”

• Diverted economic dollars. Studies show that “money you spend in the slots is money you don’t spend on restaurants and out at the theater,” Lemar said. So Sports Haven’s gain could be a loss for nearby businesses.

• “Tremendous” costs. Lemar said slot machines would attract large crowds to Sports Haven, requiring extra police coverage, which could prove costly.

Instead, they called for taking a year to study the idea through a new task force. Lemar said he would not support the task force unless it includes a representative from the Council on Problem Gambling, a statewide advocacy group.

Lemar said the three sites were chosen because there is already regulated gambling there.

Melissa Bailey photo

• Racetrack bettors “squeezed.” Dave Lonergan (pictured) added another downside.

Lonergan, a retired steel mill worker from Wallingford, predicted doom for racetrack bettors if the slots come in.

“I hate it,” he said of the idea.

If Sports Haven installs slot machines, he said, “a thousand little ladies” would invade the arena, getting in the way of the betting screens.

Melissa Bailey photo

“The big money is in the slots,” not in horses, he conceded. He gestured around the room to the many tables and chairs that sat empty at around 3 p.m. on Monday. “It’s dead.”

He said slots would generate more revenue, relegating racetrack fans to second-class status.

“The place would make more money, the town would make more money,” Lonergan said, “but guys like me would be squeezed out.”

He said he saw that happen in Gulf Stream, Florida, where a “high-class race track” turned into a casino.

It’s not clear how likely the state is to try to expand slot machines. Lemar, Ayala and Sayer asked Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey to set up the task force to examine the issue. But Sharkey has not leapt to do so. “Brendan encourages legislators to take the lead in researching issues important to them during the interim between sessions,” said his spokesman, Gabe Rosenberg.

Meanwhile, Taylor, of Sportech, said his company has been quelling rumors that the slots are coming to Sports Haven soon. Sportech bought Sports Haven two-and-half years ago. The company employs 350 people statewide at the three main OTB arenas, as well as smaller OTB outposts throughout the state, according to Taylor.

Taylor said Sportech “didn’t start” the conversation about bringing in slot machines.

“It’s not something that we’ve actually thought about,” he said. Many conversations need to take place—between the state and the tribes—before Sportech would even be involved, he said.

“I see this as being some way off.”