Editorial: In Salem, all that glitters is not gold
There was good news and bad news to be found at the casino presentation in Salem this week. In fact, the good news was the bad news.
Millennium Gaming officials detailed their latest plans for a casino at Rockingham Park, the former horse-racing track that has fallen on hard times. They’re hoping to convince the New Hampshire Legislature to legalize casino gambling and then win the bid for the single casino described in the pending legislation. And for critics who have predicted that the state was in for some sort of shabby, second-rate slots barn that couldn’t compete with the swanky casinos planned in Massachusetts, those fears, at least, might have been allayed.
Millennium has upped the ante substantially: The once $450 million project is now a $600 million plan, and the casino is only part of it. Millennium promises to bring back live thoroughbred horse racing on a new track – pleasing residents in Salem and beyond who remember the Rock’s glory days. The plan also calls for a 300-room hotel, a spa, a conference center and an entertainment venue that seats 1,000 to 1,500 people.
From the drawings presented to an enthusiastic crowd, the development looks sophisticated and fun.
And that’s the trouble, ironically enough.
Among the many serious arguments against introducing casino gambling into New Hampshire are those concerning proliferation and economic impact to existing businesses. An expensive development in Salem will exacerbate both of those worries.
Gov. Maggie Hassan has made clear that she is interested in licensing only a single casino and only in the southern part of the state. But if such a development succeeds – in terms of its own balance sheet, at least – how in the world will future governors and legislators be able to reasonably argue that the struggling North Country doesn’t deserve a casino, too? What argument will they use when the owners of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon want to introduce gambling? What if the former dog tracks in Belmont and Hinsdale want slot machines? Who could say no to a little roulette aboard the Mount Washington while cruising Winnipesaukee? Especially when the next economic downturn arrives and state government is short on cash, such arguments may well prove irresistible.
Over time, it’s not hard to imagine casino construction in multiple sites all over New Hampshire, hurting each other, hurting existing entertainment venues and hurting the state’s brand as a family friendly tourist state.
Millennium’s economic impact to existing businesses, too, is a matter for concern. The company plans to strike deals with existing local businesses to help them share in the casino’s revenue. But residents’ time and dollars are finite. The night you attend a show at the casino is a night you don’t go to the Capitol Center for the Arts. The brunch you eat at the fancy casino restaurant is a meal you might otherwise have eaten at the Common Man. Not to mention that Millennium’s deep pockets would no doubt attract music and theater acts that might otherwise play at the Verizon Center, the Cap Center, the Palace and other existing venues. (In fact, local spots are already losing out to the casinos in Connecticut; Cap Center Executive Director Nicolette Clarke told legislators last month that 26 artists the center tried to book over the last two years instead booked at Connecticut casinos.) And when those venues lose out, so do the restaurants and other businesses around them.
It’s easy to understand why Salem residents, who remember the glamor of Rockingham park and the jobs it created, would support Millennium’s proposal. But for legislators responsible for looking out for the entire state, the fancy new plan should only make them more concerned.