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Gambling in the Granite State

While lawmakers debate, many Salem residents ready to welcome casino

  • Derek Lankowski of Lyndeboro says he goes to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut four to six times a year, and he would go to a casino in Salem if one is built. "I'm all for it. It's a lot better than making a three hour drive [to Connecticut]." ; Thursday, April 11, 2013.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

    Derek Lankowski of Lyndeboro says he goes to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut four to six times a year, and he would go to a casino in Salem if one is built. "I'm all for it. It's a lot better than making a three hour drive [to Connecticut]." ; Thursday, April 11, 2013.

    (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

  • Elias Vera takes a break from his shift at a Salem pizzeria. Vera visits Foxwoods regualrly and recently took his two daughters, 14 and 16, to the casin. "'What you learn is that you can only go with what you can spend," he said. "They spent more money on shopping than I did on gambling." ;Thursday, April 11, 2013.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

    Elias Vera takes a break from his shift at a Salem pizzeria. Vera visits Foxwoods regualrly and recently took his two daughters, 14 and 16, to the casin. "'What you learn is that you can only go with what you can spend," he said. "They spent more money on shopping than I did on gambling." ;Thursday, April 11, 2013.

    (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

  • Sheila Kelley takes her dog, Daisey Mae, and her neighbor's dog, Bailey, out at her apartment complex in Salem. Kelley, a nurse, supports bringing a casino to town and recently went to Foxwoods with her sister. "It's not just gambling," she said. "My sister and I saw Journey and we went to the buffet. We played some slots and then went home. It was a fantastic night."<br/><br/> ; Thursday, April 11, 2013 (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

    Sheila Kelley takes her dog, Daisey Mae, and her neighbor's dog, Bailey, out at her apartment complex in Salem. Kelley, a nurse, supports bringing a casino to town and recently went to Foxwoods with her sister. "It's not just gambling," she said. "My sister and I saw Journey and we went to the buffet. We played some slots and then went home. It was a fantastic night."

    ; Thursday, April 11, 2013 (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

  • Rockingham Park in Salem was built in 1906 and hosted live races at the park's track until 2009. ; Thursday, April 11, 2013.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

    Rockingham Park in Salem was built in 1906 and hosted live races at the park's track until 2009. ; Thursday, April 11, 2013.

    (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

  • Rockingham Park in Salem was built in 1906 there were live races at the park's track until 2009; Thursday, April 11, 2013.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

    Rockingham Park in Salem was built in 1906 there were live races at the park's track until 2009; Thursday, April 11, 2013.

    (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

  • Elias Vera takes a break from his shift at a Salem pizzeria, Vera visits Foxwoods regualrly and recently took his two daughters, 14 and 16, to the casino, "'What you learn is that you can only go with what you can spend. They spent more money on shopping than I did on gambling." Thursday, April 11, 2013.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

    Elias Vera takes a break from his shift at a Salem pizzeria, Vera visits Foxwoods regualrly and recently took his two daughters, 14 and 16, to the casino, "'What you learn is that you can only go with what you can spend. They spent more money on shopping than I did on gambling." Thursday, April 11, 2013.

    (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

  • Derek Lankowski of Lynedbrought says he goes to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun four to six times a year, he says he would go to a vasino in Salem, "I'm all for it..It's a lot better than making a three hour drive [to Connecticut]"; Thursday, April 11, 2013.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

    Derek Lankowski of Lynedbrought says he goes to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun four to six times a year, he says he would go to a vasino in Salem, "I'm all for it..It's a lot better than making a three hour drive [to Connecticut]"; Thursday, April 11, 2013.

    (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

  • Derek Lankowski of Lyndeboro says he goes to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut four to six times a year, and he would go to a casino in Salem if one is built. "I'm all for it. It's a lot better than making a three hour drive [to Connecticut]." ; Thursday, April 11, 2013.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)
  • Elias Vera takes a break from his shift at a Salem pizzeria. Vera visits Foxwoods regualrly and recently took his two daughters, 14 and 16, to the casin. "'What you learn is that you can only go with what you can spend," he said. "They spent more money on shopping than I did on gambling." ;Thursday, April 11, 2013.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)
  • Sheila Kelley takes her dog, Daisey Mae, and her neighbor's dog, Bailey, out at her apartment complex in Salem. Kelley, a nurse, supports bringing a casino to town and recently went to Foxwoods with her sister. "It's not just gambling," she said. "My sister and I saw Journey and we went to the buffet. We played some slots and then went home. It was a fantastic night."<br/><br/> ; Thursday, April 11, 2013 (SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)
  • Rockingham Park in Salem was built in 1906 and hosted live races at the park's track until 2009. ; Thursday, April 11, 2013.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)
  • Rockingham Park in Salem was built in 1906 there were live races at the park's track until 2009; Thursday, April 11, 2013.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)
  • Elias Vera takes a break from his shift at a Salem pizzeria, Vera visits Foxwoods regualrly and recently took his two daughters, 14 and 16, to the casino, "'What you learn is that you can only go with what you can spend. They spent more money on shopping than I did on gambling." Thursday, April 11, 2013.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)
  • Derek Lankowski of Lynedbrought says he goes to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun four to six times a year, he says he would go to a vasino in Salem, "I'm all for it..It's a lot better than making a three hour drive [to Connecticut]"; Thursday, April 11, 2013.<br/><br/>(SAMANTHA GORESH / Monitor staff)

The debate over legalizing a casino in New Hampshire is largely being waged inside the State House with a focus on the morality of gambling and financial stability of the casino industry. In Salem, the town that’s worked the hardest to win a casino, the debate is less theoretical.

Maybe that’s because it comes with a visual.

Sitting on one of Salem’s two main drags, behind a tired entrance gate, are the sagging barns of the once thriving and famous Rockingham Park. It’s there, on 170 acres, that Millennium Gaming hopes to return live horse racing and introduce casino gambling should the Legislature pass a casino bill currently in the House.

Expanded gambling has never fared well in the House, and even with Gov. Maggie Hassan backing the bill, lawmakers are deeply divided over this legislation, which would award one casino license through a competitive bid.

Salem, meanwhile, has rolled out the red carpet.

The local chamber of commerce’s board supports a casino. In March, 81 percent of voters at town meeting endorsed a casino at Rockingham Park. The police chief and town manager are behind it. And the selectmen have appointed a Casino Advisory Committee to help them distribute the estimated $3 million a year Salem would get just for hosting a casino.

The committee, led by Salem Sen. Chuck Morse, a Republican, has already discussed using some of that money to lower the town’s tax rate, which is $20.58 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

“I think it’s important as a community that we prepare for this,” said Morse, a main sponsor of the casino bill. “I think any community (who applies for the license) ought to prepare themselves.”

Local support is required in the casino bill. But local support has never been enough.

“It’s very frustrating to read down here statements from people up there who say they are appalled (that the state is considering a casino) or that it will affect the quality of life in New Hampshire,” said Gene Bryant of Salem and a member of NH Casino Now, a Salem group advocating for a casino at Rockingham Park. “How is the quality of life in New London or Laconia or Concord affected by the development of the casino and the resurrection of a racetrack at Rockingham Park?”

Bryant’s sense of urgency is understandable when you consider what Rockingham Park, built in 1906, has meant and could mean to Salem. It once attracted national championship thoroughbred racehorses, including Seabiscuit, the subject of a best-selling novel and a 2003 Oscar-nominated film. It ran live races until 2009.

Because of its size, it’s proximity to Massachusetts and its easy access to Interstate 93, Rockingham Park holds the town’s best option for development, said Keith Hickey, town manager.

“I think for quite some time, there has been hope by many people that if the town is going to develop, that the drawing card is going to be Rockingham Park the way it use to be when it was up and running,” Hickey said. “(The park) is being used now (for charitable gaming mostly), but it’s absolutely not being utilized as effectively as it could be.”

Casino champions

Millennium Gaming, which owns casinos in Las Vegas and Pennsylvania, has been talking with local officials since 2006 about its plan to build a $450 million casino at Rockingham Park. While other developers are expected to bid for the casino license if the bill passes, only Millennium has forged such a relationship with the local community.

In February, more than 200 people came out in a snowstorm to hear Millennium’s plans, again, for Rockingham Park. Walk Main or Broadway streets, the two main roads in town, and it’s not hard to find many casino champions.

They may not know the particulars of the bill, but they believe a casino would mean a lot more money and visitors for Salem.

Elias Vera, 41, manages a Salem pizzeria, has six kids and has lived in Salem 17 years. He drives two hours to Connecticut each week to gamble – responsibly, he said. When Vera won $100,000 at Foxwoods a few years ago, he brought the money home to put away for his kids.

“There are a lot of pros and cons,” Vera said Thursday. “Initially there will be 1,000 jobs, Salem will get at least $1 million a year, and I’m tired seeing the racetrack. It’s decrepit.” As for the cons, Vera knows critics predict a casino will bring crime and hurt local businesses like the pizzeria he manages. But he doesn’t believe it.

“I think (the police) have done a good job of stemming the tide (of crime) that creeps up already,” Vera said. “And, I think if anything, it’s going to help local businesses.”

Sheila Kelley, a 47-year-old psychiatric nurse, left Massachusetts seven years ago to buy a condo in Salem. She planned to stay a couple of years and resell the condo at a profit. She hasn’t been able to because of the recession.

And through her work as a psychiatric nurse, Kelley said, she’s seen the pain the downturn in the economy has caused people and families.

“I would like a casino because we need jobs,” she said Thursday. “People have lost everything. They are so depressed and desperate. (Casino critics) say that with a casino, the local businesses will suffer, but I think it will bring people here.”

Milton and Laura Souza, 85 and 80, respectively, drove the 20 minutes from Somerville, Mass., last week to grab lunch at Denny’s and grocery shop at Market Basket. They love playing the slot machines at Foxwoods, but the 210-mile round trip is a burden, they said. Even with Massachusetts considering applications for its own casinos, Milton Souza thinks New Hampshire can open a casino first.

And they’d visit it, they said.

“I don’t smoke and I don’t drink,” Milton Souza said. “I’ve got to do something.”

Rep. Robert Elliott, a Salem Republican, supports the bill even as his party opposes it.

Elliott, who serves on the House Finance Committee, shares Hassan’s belief that the state needs the $80 million from a casino license fee this biennium to make the budget work. “I’m strongly in her corner when it comes to that,” he said.

Elliott is not persuaded by critics who predict crime will come with a casino; he said the mall in Salem brings crime already, namely shoplifting. And he doesn’t understand why the Republican party can support the sale of alcohol, which has its own associations with crime and addiction, but not gambling.

“It is frustrating to be a Republican and have to go against the party platform,” he said. “I wish the Republican party would move forward to the present century and remove (opposition to) gambling from our platform.”

Casino critics

The legislation and a casino are not without critics, however, even in Salem.

At least two of Salem’s nine state representatives oppose expanded gambling.

Rep. John Sytek, a Republican, said he has no moral objections to gambling and doesn’t believe a single casino, as is envisioned in the bill, will destroy the “so-called brand of New Hampshire.”

Sytek’s concern is financial. Given the drop in casino spending nationwide over the last few years, Sytek doesn’t believe a casino in Salem will bring in the revenue supporters imagine, especially when Massachusetts’s three pending casinos open. He said some estimates have put the annual revenue for a Salem casino at $50 million to $100 million a year.

The bill, as it stands now, allows the state to tax the annual slot machine revenue at 30 percent. Once the state gets hooked on that money, Sytek is concerned it will grant the casino concessions if a casino sees its profits drop, just to keep some tax revenue coming in. Other states have lowered the tax rate as casinos have struggled and one state is considering giving its casinos a sizeable tax credit to stay open.

“If racing were profitable, it wouldn’t need to be subsidized,” Sytek said.

Sytek isn’t convinced the 81 percent vote at town meeting is an accurate reflection of the town’s feelings about a casino. When he’s talked with voters about his concerns, he doesn’t always change their minds, he said, but he gives them arguments they hadn’t thought much about.

Rep. Patrick Bick, also a Salem Republican, is serving his first term and ran, partly, on his opposition to expanded gambling. He isn’t convinced a casino will create the jobs people expect once the construction work is finished.

The bill allows a casino to have up to 5,000 slot machines and 150 table games. “Slot machines don’t create jobs,” Bick said. “You have a person to play it and two men who go around at some point in the day and empty it.”

Bick fears the jobs that do materialize will come from the casino’s bar, restaurant and hotel. If that’s the case, Bick wonders how local restaurants and hotels will compete with the casino.

The owners of Park View Inn, which sits across from Rockingham Park, did not return a call for comment. A spokeswoman for the Red Roof Inn, which is nearby, declined to comment.

Bick shares his community’s concern about the future of Salem and doesn’t disagree that Rockingham Park is important to that future.

“I struggle with that,” he said. “I think Rockingham Park is a kind of landmark. I think something positive should be done with it. But what is another question.”

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323,
atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

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