Blast from past: Casino at Waterplace

Grand Casino of Monte Carlo, in Monaco, erected in 1858.

Grand Casino of Monte Carlo, in Monaco, erected in 1858. (stylefile.julesb.co.uk)

Back when a casino was proposed for the Rhode Island town of West Greenwich, I wrote a column that bears rereading in light of the proposal to turn the Newport Grand slots shed into a genuine casino. By the way, today Rhode Island has slots parlors up north in Lincoln and down south in Newport. The Lincoln parlor has recently been upgraded with table games and a vote on table games in Newport has been approved. Meanwhile, Massachusetts has begun to develop slots and casinos. Here is the column:

If we must have a casino . . .
July 7, 1994 

ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, casino gambling must be factored into the future of Rhode Island. If we are lucky, its impact will remain on the periphery, across state lines, siphoning the wealth of its citizens only slowly into the coffers of Connecticut, possibly Massachusetts, and ultimately into the pockets of gambling interests in Nevada.

If we must, however, Rhode Islanders will participate in the location and operation of a casino of their own – actually, of their own Indian tribe, the Narragansetts. If the time comes for Rhode Island to negotiate the details of such a casino, state officials and their Indian counterparts should seek a location that best suits the interests of Rhode Islanders.

The choice, it seems, would depend upon which of two basic strategies the state adopts. One would aim to minimize a casino’s social impact by putting it in South County. The other would aim to maximize its economic impact by putting it in Providence.

I don’t know which course would be wiser. Much would depend on calculations about the future that are difficult to make. However, supposing for the sake of discussion that a choice becomes necessary and Providence is chosen, where in the city should a casino be built? It seems to me that to maximize its utility as a tool of economic development while minimizing its potential to hurt Rhode Island’s most vulnerable citizens, there are two requirements:

* It should be designed to appeal to people who can afford to gamble, and who expect to spend a lot of money enjoying the prospect of losing more of it.

* It should be built not at the Port of Providence or at Field’s Point, as has been suggested, but downtown, in or near Capital Center.

These requirements would help our casino compete with Foxwoods. They would also minimize its allure to those of us who can least afford to gamble, and whose losses would lead to increases in state social expenditures. Such expenditures would offset, wholly or in part, whatever revenue the state hopes to gain through its participation in a casino.

We should bear in mind that Rhode Island’s participation will have been forced upon it. Its purpose should not be to fulfill its citizens’ latent desire to gamble, but to raise funds to fulfill other needs. The state isn’t obligated to offer equal-opportunity vice.

To avoid recirculating our own income, our casino should appeal primarily to gamblers from out of state. Because the allure of Foxwoods to unsophisticated gamblers has been firmly established with its banks of slots and video poker machines, our casino should appeal to sophisticated gamblers who imagine themselves matching wits with James Bond.

A stylish, exclusive casino would favor croupiers over machines, and require patrons to dress with equal panache. It should cater to those who gamble more to enjoy themselves than to enrich themselves. Come what may, it will inevitably attract gamblers who make a living on dice, chips and cards; why not seek those who will spend a lot in the process?

Our casino should be sited so as to maximize the comparison with Monte Carlo and to capitalize on Newport’s established reputation among the international jet set. Rhode Island has already invested millions in its capital city. The casino should sit on the elegant banks of the Woonasquatucket River near Waterplace in Capital Center. Throw in the option of parking at satellite lots and traveling downtown by water taxi, and our casino would offer the greatest contrast to the Foxwoods experience and the strongest allure to visitors from out of state and abroad.

A casino, say, at Field’s Point, on the other hand, would require major new infrastructure and could undermine current economic development efforts, offsetting the stimulus of the Convention Center, the Downcity Plan and Providence Place. Rather, its location should boost the city into the topmost rank of American resorts, and its architecture should revive the optimism of our own Gilded Age a century ago.

Ultimately, the best way to promote prosperity in the Ocean State is to avoid a casino. If we must have one, I suppose I’d prefer that it be in South County, and so rinky-dink that nobody would go. But try getting the Narragansetts to go along with that!

If, indeed, our limited ventures into vice have already closed our options legally, and if we conclude that the best place to build a casino is in Providence, we can at least minimize its risk by upping our stake in downtown. Let us not shrink from thinking big. At best, we might turn an unsought set of cards into a winning hand in the game of economic development.

* * *

David Brussat is a Journal-Bulletin editorial writer and columnist.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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