By John Toole
---- — SALEM — Area residents last night praised the redesigned $600-million-plus Rockingham Park casino plan.
But it’s lawmakers who need convincing, even some of Salem’s nine representatives.
A forum at the track drew a standing-room crowd of about 200 and there was strong support for the plan.
But one local lawmaker said four of his colleagues who oppose the plan could be key to the plan’s advancement or demise.
The 48-minute event at times seemed more of a pep rally for House passage of Senate Bill 152, which would license one casino in New Hampshire for $80 million by bid with local approval.
Rep. Robert Elliott, R-Salem, told residents a joint House committee studying the bill is split, with 20 lawmakers in favor, 20 opposed and five undecided. Their recommendation is due next week.
Elliott said the full House vote also is close — as tight as eight votes — and Salem’s divided delegation could make the difference.
There are four no votes in the Salem delegation, according to Elliott. He identified them as Reps. Patrick Bick, John Sytek, Marilinda Garcia and Bianca Garcia, all Republicans.
“Turn them yes and that could make it a winner,” Elliott said.
In an interview later, Elliott said he has no doubt the four lawmakers could be decisive players in the casino debate in Concord.
“This would be a historic moment for the representatives of Salem if this bill passed,” he said.
Las Vegas-based Millennium Gaming Inc., which owns an option to buy the track and intends to bid for a casino license, held the forum to showcase new redevelopment plans.
Besides a casino geared to the bill that would allow 150 table games and 5,000 slot machines, the project includes a 300-room hotel, entertainment venue of up to 1,500 seats, a spa and convention space.
Architect David Climans said the project would feature classic New England architecture.
“So it will be timeless, so it will fit in with the community,” Climans said.
The complex would be reconfigured on the 170-acre site near Exit 1 of Interstate 93.
The new racetrack — Millennium has yet to determine whether racing would be thoroughbred or harness — would parallel Route 28.
The main entrance would be off Rockingham Park Boulevard.
Millennium co-CEO Bill Wortman said the company intends to hold festivals, perhaps blues or barbecue events, in an outdoor area near the track.
Parking lots and decks would accommodate 8,000 vehicles and 4 to 5 million visits per year.
“This will be a destination resort,” Wortman said.
A pond and fountain would greet casino visitors.
“A grand approach to this sophisticated and elegant building,” Climans said.
Larry Belair of the NH Casino Now group asked Wortman what would happen to charity gaming while the new complex is developed.
Wortman said developers may leave part of the existing facility in place during construction to accommodate charity gamers, but he didn’t rule out temporary relocation off site.
Sponsors say the casino development will bring $100 million annually in revenues to the state for highways, colleges and economic development. Wortman said racing would bring the state additional revenue.
Millennium has estimated more than 3,000 construction and gaming jobs would be created, plus more as neighboring businesses benefit from the resort.
Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, one of the casino bill sponsors, said the House vote should not be in doubt, given what the project would mean for the state.
“We should be 100 votes ahead,” Rausch said after the forum. “We need to move our economy forward.”
Wortman paused to thank Salem voters for their passage, by a 4-1 margin, of a nonbinding referendum at Town Meeting in support of a casino.
“That was a very good message to send,” Wortman said.
Rockingham Park president Ed Callahan said he hoped 201 members of the 400-member House will find the redevelopment plans as spectacular as he does.
Residents who viewed the plans were pleased.
“Finally, Rockingham Park will be used once again to its full potential,” Marion Leriche of Salem said. “This is wonderful, as far as I can see.”
Nick Russo’s family, from Everett, which is competing for a Massachusetts casino, also has a home on Islington Pond in Salem.
“I think this is a great idea,” he said. “My family and I are 100 percent behind it.”
“Awesome,” is how Chanel Simard, who is active with local Salem charities, described the project. “I wish they had these architectural drawings a year ago and were passing them around up north in Concord.”