By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — What seemed like a good deal to town and Rockingham Park officials proves there’s no such thing as a sure bet.
Disappointment was strong yesterday after the state House of Representatives voted, 199-164, Wednesday to kill legislation that could have brought a $600-million-plus casino and entertainment complex to the former racetrack.
Legislative approval of expanded gambling in New Hampshire was expected to pump millions of dollars into the state and local economies.
Now, the question is whether Rockingham Park — a Salem institution for more than a century — can remain open without a casino.
Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas recently unveiled its latest plans for a 300-room hotel and entertainment venue at the park. Passage of Senate Bill 152 could have meant 5,000 video slot machines, 150 table games and up to 3,000 construction and gaming jobs at the park. The bill would have authorized a single casino and many saw Millennium and The Rock at the front of the pack.
Millennium spokesman Rich Killion insisted yesterday his company remains committed to Rockingham Park and the people of Salem. Millenium will not sever its six-year relationship with the park, he said.
Millennium has an option to purchase the 170-acre property, an option the company extended this winter. Millennium co-CEO Bill Wortman personally has a 20 percent ownership stake in the racetrack.
Yesterday, Rockingham Park president and general manager Edward Callahan said he’s not sure what’s in the cards for The Rock.
A casino was the only serious alternative among the many presented to him over the years, he said.
“I’m sure in the next month or two we will sit down and review all the options,” he said. “We really haven’t pushed anything else there.”
Callahan said he isn’t sure what those options are at this point.
“I just think away and beyond gaming — whether it’s residential, industrial or commercial — anything could be an option,” he said.
Opening casinos in Massachusetts will stymie any competitive edge New Hampshire could have gained by adopting expanded gambling, he said.
It’s in the Legislature’s hands, Callahan said. Lawmakers will be forced to raise and create new taxes to fund the state’s needs, he said.
“The state just took a major step forward toward an income tax,” Callahan said. “Property taxes will rise.”
Callahan and Killion said even if expanded gambling is eventually approved, a slimmed-down plan — such as a slots parlor— would not be a viable option at The Rock.
“If all you are going to do is just put in a bunch of slot machines, I don’t see that as being a great benefit to the town or the state,” Callahan said. “Personally, I don’t think that’s what people would be looking for.”
“That’s not even a consideration,” he said.
To compete with casinos in Massachusetts and Connecticut, New Hampshire has to provide something that’s similar, if not better, Callahan and Killion said.
“Rockingham Park and Salem are still the best location in New England for a casino,” Killion said. “We think that is the best fit and that remains.”
Callahan said the charitable gaming that still takes place at the park will suffer as people flock to more luxurious facilities south of the border.
Last year, $2 million in charitable gaming was generated at The Rock, he said.
“Down the road, it could be half that,” he said.
Callahan said developers have presented him with numerous business proposals over the years.
Probably the most unique was a plan for an indoor ski area — 38 stories high — presented four years ago, Callahan said. That project is now being built in New Jersey, he said.
“In the end, I don’t think they had the best interests of Salem in mind,” Callahan said of all the developers. “I’m not sure anyone would like to see a 38-story anything here.”
Salem’s five selectmen said yesterday they were disappointed in the House’s vote, especially since a casino seemed like the best alternative for Rockingham Park.
A casino would probably have the least impact on town services, compared to a major residential or business complex moving to the site, Selectman Stephen Campbell said. That’s because the casino would have to provide its own security and would be billed for emergency services, he said.
Without a casino, Campbell said, he doesn’t see The Rock remaining in its current state for long.
“That ‘s just too valuable a property to just sit there,” he said. “I always thought the casino was the best opportunity for Salem and the state.”
Selectman James Keller agreed.
“It’s certainly a blow and disappointing and perplexing,” he said of the House vote. “I think certainly a casino was the most viable from an economic perspective.”
Selectman Patrick Hargreaves is among those who believe lawmakers ignored the 81 percent of Salem voters who said they wanted a casino at the polls in March.
Of Salem’s nine representatives, only five voted to ignore the House joint committee’s recommendation that the bill was inexpedient to legislate. Had the full House rejected that recommendation, some 19 proposed amendments would have been heard, opening up the possibility of passage.
Those five lawmakers, all Republicans, were Reps. Gary Azarian, Ronald Belanger, Robert Elliott, Anne Priestley and Joseph Sweeney.
Three Salem Republicans agreed to accept the recommendation, effectively killing the casino bill they were Reps. Patrick Bick, Marlinda Garcia and John Sytek. Rep. Bianca Garcia did not vote.
“That’s real discouraging when you have four people who didn’t listen to the people who wanted a casino,” Hargreaves said. “When are they going to wake up?”
Selectman Michael Lyons said Salem officials will continue to work with Callahan as he plots the future of Rockingham Park.
“We have worked with them with the zoning in the past and we will work with them in the future,” Lyons said.