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N.H. civic groups: Casinos book best entertainers

The executive director of the Capitol Center for the Arts told a special House gambling panel yesterday that a proposed New Hampshire casino would outbid her nonprofit and others like it for the top entertainment acts needed to survive.

Nicolette Clarke told the panel she struggles now to win the three to four top acts needed each year to subsidize other shows that make Concord’s downtown vibrant. Clarke said when the nonprofit Capitol Center is busy, nearby restaurants are filled.

“We are really there for the community. We operate on the thinnest of margins,” she said.

The center last year had a $45,000 profit that was mostly due to performances by Bill Cosby and two other top acts, she said.

“Gambling is all about shifting local money, and there will be cannibalization,” she said.

The House panel is considering the impact that legalizing a casino would have on the state and community. The House will vote later this month on a Senate bill to legalize one casino with up to 5,000 video slot machines and 150 table games.

The panel heard a similar story yesterday from Tim Bechert, regional general manager for the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester. Bechert backs an amendment to set a 1,500-seat limit on the performance venue at the proposed casino.

But Clarke said the limit would not protect her center or The Music Hall in Portsmouth, Colonial Theater in Keene and the Lebanon Opera House. She said the four have a seating capacity ranging from 700 to 1,300 seats.

It isn’t clear what, if any, entertainment facilities a casino might have, but Clarke, Bechert and others with performance centers are worried about the buying power casinos have in booking acts.

“There are only a certain number of touring acts,” Clarke said.

She said 26 artists the center tried to book over the last two years instead booked at Connecticut casinos.

Bechert said Verizon Wireless Arena would have to guarantee a performer like Elton John $750,000 regardless of ticket sales. In contrast, he said, the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut can offer a $1.2 million guarantee for the same act even if it doesn’t make money on ticket sales because it wants people to come to gamble, not watch the show.

The booking agreements often block artists from playing nearby within a specific time frame or number of miles, Clarke said.

Bechert said the arena owned by the city of Manchester seats between 2,700 and 10,400 depending on the event, and a 1,500-seat limit on a casino would be manageable. Bechert said he was not trying to protect any venue but his own with the amendment.

Restaurant owner Tom Boucher said the state would be better served creating tax incentives for new businesses to come to New Hampshire than legalizing a casino that will cannibalize from existing ones. He warned that New Hampshire will have a hard time limiting the number of casinos.

“It’s like a rental car. You drive out and have the spikes (in the road) so you can’t go back,” he said.

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