By Jack Minch

MediaNews

LEOMINSTER -- The thought of gangster Bugsy Siegel developing the Las Vegas strip may come to mind when people think of casinos, but the reality is more like the former NBC television show "Las Vegas" than Warren Beatty's "Bugsy," according to the man leading the state Gaming Commission.

"There is a kind of fear of criminal activity without anybody having any real evidence there is an increase in criminal activity," said commission Chairman Stephen Crosby.

The gambling sector has evolved into a mainstream business with entertainment venues that are more profitable as legal enterprises than as illicit ventures, he said.

"It's a very different world than what it was. Most of these companies are very reputable," Crosby said. "They don't want a crime risk. They want people to come."

PPE Casino Resorts MA LLC, owner of the Maryland Live! Casino in Hanover, Md., is proposing a $200 million slots-machine casino on Jungle Road in Leominster.

The company must win the support of residents in a referendum vote scheduled for Sept. 24 before the gaming commission will agree to let its application move forward. PPE is competing against three other proposals, including sites in Tewksbury, Millbury and Raynham.

Realistically, any time there is a congregation of people such as at shopping centers, there will be an increase in criminal activity like shoplifting, stealing cars or drinking too much, Crosby said.

"People get exaggerated fears, but we are clearly committed ... to keeping general consequences to their minimum, Crosby said.

The commission took a hard line against seeming improprieties by eliminating Plainridge Racecourse from the application process last week, in part because a background check showed its former developer, Ourway Realty president Gary Piontkowski, had been taking earnings from the money room.

Governing bodies have tightly regulated the gaming industry for decades, and the companies typically go through rigorous background checks in all jurisdictions, said Joe Weinberg, a principal for PPE and president of its parent, The Cordish Companies.

"Historically, the gaming business is one of the most regulated industries in the country today. The companies that are in the gaming business today are either large public companies or large private companies like ours," Weinberg said.

The Associated Press reported in February 2012 that fear that rapes, murders, assaults and burglaries would increase in Connecticut once Foxwoods Resort Casino opened in 1992 and Mohegan Sun opened in 1996 were unfounded.

No less an authority figure than then-Gov. Lowell Weicker had even warned in 1991 that Foxwoods would lead to organized crime, prostitution, drunken driving and other crimes, according to the report.

However, at least two academic studies of the impact gambling has on communities have concluded there are negative impacts.

A study titled "Casinos, Crime, and Community Costs," released in June 2000 by Earl l. Grinols, David B. Mustard and Cynthia Hunt Dilly, concluded that casinos led to increases in crimes ranging from rape, aggravated assaults, burglaries and larceny to auto theft, after three years of opening.

"These effects outweigh the potentially positive effect on crime that casinos may have through offering improved labor-market opportunities," the report concluded.

The report used data from every county in the country from 1977 to 1996.

"Overall, 8 percent of property crime and 10 percent of violent crime in counties with casinos was due to the presence of the casino," the report said.

The study found that robberies saw the highest spike.

A study of casinos on Indian reservations, titled "The Social and Economic Impact of Native American Casinos," by William N. Evans and Julie H. Topoleski at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, agreed with the report by Grinols, Mustard and Dilly.

"A key assumption in that paper was that there is a large increase in crime and problem gambling as a result of having a casino nearby," the paper by Evans and Topoleski said. 

The paper found that bankruptcies, auto theft, larceny and violent crimes rates all saw a 10 percent jump four or more years after a casino's opening in a county.

Leominster Police Chief Robert Healey said it would be a mistake to assume the crime trends seen in other parts of the country would appear in Leominster, as well, should the slots parlor be built.

"I'm not concerned about a casino bringing crime, because it doesn't," Healey said. "We have more crime in our retail outlets because of the transient nature of people who want to steal."

The per-capita crime rate is higher in Orlando, Fla., than it is in Las Vegas, Weinberg said. Casinos typically attract an older, higher-earning and more educated customer, he said.

The crime rate in Hanover, Md., dropped 25 percent in Arundel County after the company's Maryland Live! casino opened in June 2012, he said.

"You don't have prostitution in these facilities, you don't have drugs," Weinberg said. "These things don't occur where you have cameras and film on every inch of the property."

Follow Jack Minch on Facebook, Tout and Twitter @JackMinch.