Officials of Penn National Gaming, the first company to hold a license for expanded gambling in Massachusetts, said Friday they would begin construction planning next week at the Plainridge harness racetrack with an eye toward opening a slots parlor there by next spring.
The state gambling commission voted formally on Friday to grant the five-year operating license to Wyomissing, Pa.-based Penn National after the company agreed to 18 mostly technical conditions attached to the award.
"Congratulations and welcome to Massachusetts," commission chairman Stephen Crosby told Penn National executives immediately after the unanimous vote, which came one day after the panel voted 3-2 in favor of the Plainville facility. Crosby had supported a competing bid from Cordish Cos. for a slots parlor in Leominster, but he and Commissioner James McHugh, who also backed Leominster, joined with the three other commissioners in the licensing vote.
Crosby had nothing but praise for Penn National on Friday, noting the company had promised to create 1,000 construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs, secure the future of harness racing and attack problem gambling.
The license was the first awarded by the commission under the state's 2011 gambling law that also allows for up to three resort casinos. The smaller casino in Plainville will be limited to 1,250 slot machines with no Las Vegas-style table games.
Tim Wilmott, Penn National's chief executive, said the company was aware of the competition it would likely face from larger casinos in Massachusetts.
"We are not afraid of competition," Wilmott said. "We like the fact that we are going to get a head start and be able to develop relationships with customers at our facilities for a couple of years before other competition comes in. We think the market is big enough."
The commission is expected to vote in the coming months on casino licenses in the greater Boston area and in western Massachusetts. Additionally, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is seeking federal approval for a tribal casino in Taunton, about 17 miles from Plainridge.
Officials expect the slots parlor to generate $250 million in tax revenue for Massachusetts over the first two years and $60 million in future years after other casinos open.
Wilmott said the company would launch an aggressive marketing campaign, including television, online and outdoor advertising, not only to attract new business but also to capture gamblers from Massachusetts who now travel south to gamble at Twin River Casino, less than a half hour away in Lincoln.
Twin River recently added table games to slot machines, in anticipation of competition from Massachusetts.
Penn National executives were visiting Plainridge on Friday to celebrate the license with about 100 current employees. Wilmott said a design team would be at the track Monday to begin planning for construction of the slots parlor, and hoped to announce a groundbreaking date soon.
Penn National has not ruled out the possibility of seeking a partial opening within six months, but Wilmott added a permanent facility was likely to make a better first impression on customers.
Still looming is the possibility of a ballot question that would ask Massachusetts voters to repeal the casino law.
"We're not going to slow down our construction process with this threat out there," said Wilmott. "If there is a ballot question in November we're going to fight for the right outcome."
The commission would seek a mechanism for refunding hefty licensing fees paid by casino companies in the unlikely chance the law is abolished, Crosby said.
The group Repeal the Casino Deal has asked the state's highest court to overturn a ruling by Attorney General Martha Coakley that the ballot question is unconstitutional.